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NAACP turns 100 today Civil rights organization was 'born' in a home in Buffalo

In 1905, 32 prominent African-American men gathered for a reception at the home of William and Mary B. Talbert, members of Michigan Street Baptist Church -- once a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The men -- who had financial backing from William Talbert -- wanted equal rights for black men. And they wanted it immediately.

"We are men. We want to be treated as men. And we shall win," scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois was quoted as saying.

Little did the Talberts know that the reception they hosted in their home would give birth to one of the country's leading civil rights organizations.

The following day, the group convened officially for the first time as the Niagara Movement in the Fort Erie (Ont.) Hotel, according to Bishop William Henderson, historian and tour guide for Michigan Street Baptist Church.

Four years later, the group would form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which celebrates its centennial today.

The country's largest and oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP has grown to 520,000 members worldwide in its 100 years, according to the NAACP Web site. It has an annual budget of $21 million and 85 full-time employees.

During the civil rights era, the NAACP played a primary role in three towering victories: the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The organization has come a long way from that first gathering in the Talberts' home, which was adjacent to Michigan Street Baptist Church.

By 1908, DuBois and other Niagara Movement members joined a group of mostly white Northerners to form the National Negro Committee after a race riot in Springfield, Ill., left at least seven people dead that same year.

The committee chose Feb. 12, 1909, as its founding date -- the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

"The riots in Springfield, Lincoln's home, was the catalyst that triggered the group to come together a year later," said Frank Mesiah, head of the NAACP of Buffalo.

"Our plaque used to have Abraham Lincoln on it," said Madeline Scott, an officer and longtime member of the Buffalo NAACP, adding that at the time, many blacks were Republicans -- the party of Lincoln.

"Blacks felt they were free because of Lincoln, and I'm assuming that would be a reason why they chose Lincoln's birthday," she said.

In 1910, the National Negro Committee changed its name to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The organization's first major legal case involved a black farmhand accused of murder. The man had a dispute with his landlord; a sheriff entered the farmhand's house without a warrant at 3 a.m. and was shot to death. The NAACP got the sentence commuted from death to life in prison, and several years later the farmhand was released.

An early NAACP focus was the passage of a federal anti-lynching law. It never happened, but in 1917, the NAACP won its first Supreme Court case, a unanimous ruling that states could not segregate people into residential districts based on race.

Some of the group's most significant post-1960s achievements, according to the NAACP Web site, include keeping conservative legal scholar Robert Bork off the Supreme Court and ex-Klansman David Duke out of the Senate; registering hundreds of thousands of voters; leading marches; and pushing the issue of diversity in corporations and on television.

The organization reached a low point in the early 1990s, when it faced a $4 million deficit and lacked the funds to pay bills, salaries or even severance for laid-off workers. Then, Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers -- the NAACP's field secretary in Mississippi -- ran for board chairwoman and won by one vote. During her three-year tenure, she worked tirelessly to raise funds and is credited with restoring the NAACP to prominence.

To commemorate the centennial, all 1,700 branches of the NAACP across the nation are hosting celebrations during different times this month, Mesiah noted.

The local branch, which has about 1,000 members, will hold its celebration at 1 p.m. Feb. 21 in the Durham Center, 200 Eagle St., near Michigan Avenue. A reception will follow the program. The centennial event is free and open to the public.

News wire services contributed to this report.

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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