Founded as the monthly magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1910, the Crisis has played an important role in the formation and development of African-American public opinion since its inception. As the official voice of America's leading civil rights organization, the Crisis gained entry into a variety of African-American and progressive white homes, from the working class and rural poor to the black middle class. Through the mid-1930s, the Crisis was dominated by the character, personality, and opinions of its first editor and NAACP board member, W. E. B. Du Bois. Because of his broad stature within black communities, Du Bois and the NAACP were synonymous for many African Americans. One of his editorials or essays could literally sway the opinions of thousands of black Americans.
The teens were a time of dynamic change within black communities as the Great Migration began to speed demographic shifts and African-American institutions grew and expanded. As black newspapers and periodicals gained prominence within these rapidly developing communities, the New York-based magazine the Crisis emerged as one of the most eloquent defenders of black civil rights and racial justice in the United States. During this era, the magazine led the pursuit of a federal anti-lynching law, equality at the ballot box, and an end to legal segregation. As war approached, the Crisis ran vigorous denunciations of racial violence in its columns. Following a bloody riot in east St. Louis in 1917, Du Bois editorialized with melancholy, "No land that loves to lynch 'niggers' can lead the hosts of the Almighty." In the same year, after black servicemen rampaged through the streets of Houston, killing seventeen whites and resulting in the execution of thirteen African Americans, the Crisis bitterly lamented, "Here at last, white folks died. Innocent, adventitious strangers, perhaps, as innocent as the thousands of Negroes done to death in the last two centuries. Our hands tremble to rise and exult, our lips strive to cry. And yet our hands are not raised in exultation; and yet our lips are silent, as we face another great human wrong."
After the initial success of black troops stationed in France during the summer of 1918, Du Bois penned the controversial editorial "Close Ranks." In it, he wrote, "Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills." Appealing to the ideals of patriotism, citizenship, and sacrifice connected to military service, the Crisis editors believed that by fighting a war "to make the world safe for democracy," African Americans would be in a better position to expect a new era of opportunity and equality after the war's end. As the war drew to a close and black soldiers returned home, the Crisis continued its determined efforts to secure a larger share of democracy for African Americans. In "Returning Soldier," the magazine captured the fighting spirit of the moment: " We return. /We return from fighting. /We return fighting. Make way for democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why."
The next two decades, though, did not bear out the optimism of Crisis editors. During the 1920s, as racial conservatism set in nationwide and the hopes of returning black soldiers dimmed, the Crisis shifted its focus to the development of the cultural politics of the "New Negro" movement in Harlem. With the addition of celebrated author Jessie Fauset to the editorial board, the Crisis printed essays from Harlem Renaissance architect Alain Locke, as well as early works of fiction and poetry by Fauset, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, among others. The 1930s proved contentious years for the Crisis as it went to battle with the Communist Party over the fate of nine African Americans in the Scottsboro case. In addition, the Depression put the magazine in financial peril. As Du Bois struggled to find solutions to the dire circumstances facing most black Americans, he published a series of essays advocating the creation of "urban black self-determination" through the creation of race-based economic cooperatives. This stance irked many NAACP leaders who saw the remarks as a repudiation of the organization's integrationist goals. The clash precipitated a split within the group which resulted in the resignation of Du Bois from both the magazine and the NAACP board in 1934.
What the Crisis lost in the departure of Du Bois, it regained with the rapidly increasing membership of the NAACP during the Second World War and the rising tide of civil rights protest throughout the nation. While the magazine no longer had the stature, intellectual respect, or skillful writing associated with Du Bois, it remained an important public African-American voice. In particular, as the NAACP legal attack on segregation crescendoed in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Crisis ran a special issue dedicated solely to the NAACP victory, featuring the full text of the decision, historical overviews, and analysis. One editorial gloated, "The 'sepa-rate but equal' fiction as legal doctrine now joins the horsecar, the bustle, and the five-cent cigar." While the Crisis trumpeted the victory, it also kept a pragmatic eye on the unfinished business of racial justice in America, stating, "We are at that point in our fight against segregation where unintelligent optimism and childish faith in a court decision can blind us to the fact that legal abolition of segregation is not the final solution for the social cancer of racism."
Over the next decade, as the NAACP struggled to find its place in the post-Brown movement, the Crisis maintained its support of nonviolent civil rights activity, although it no longer set the agenda. Thurgood Marshall, in an article on the student sit-in wave sweeping the South in 1960, compared Mississippi and Alabama to South Africa and argued, "Young people, in the true tradition of our democratic principles, are fighting the matter for all of us and they are doing it in the most effective way. Protest—the right to protest—is basic to a democratic form of government." Of the 1963 "Jobs and Freedom" march on Washington, D.C., the Crisis beamed, "Never had such a cross section of the American people been united in such a vast outpouring of humanity." Similarly, in 1964, with the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act, the Crisis editorialized, "[the Act] is both an end and a beginning: an end to the Federal Government's hands-off policy; a beginning of an era of Federally-protected rights for all citizens."
As the movement spun off after 1965 toward Black Power, increasing radicalization and, in some cases, violence, the NAACP and the Crisis began to lose their prominent position in shaping African-American attitudes and opinions. Against these new politics, the Crisis appeared more and more conservative. Continuing to oppose violent self-defense and separatism, the Crisis also came out against radical economic redistribution as well as the Black Studies movement of the late sixties and early seventies. Over the next two decades, the Crisis evolved into a more mainstream popular magazine, upgrading its pages to a glossy stock and including more advertisements, society articles, and human interest stories. Unable to recapture the clear programmatic focus that had driven its contents during the previous fifty years, the Crisis articles tended to be more retrospective and self-congratulatory than progressive. In the late 1980s, the Crisis took a brief hiatus but reappeared in the 1990s in a revised form, focusing primarily on national politics, cultural issues, and African-American history.
—Patrick D. Jones
Ellis, Mark. "'Closing Ranks' and 'Seeking Honors': W. E. B. DuBois in WWI." Journal of American History. Vol. 79, No. 1, 1992.
Hughes, Langston. Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP. New York, Berkeley Publishing, 1962.
Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race. New York, Holt Publishing Company, 1994.
——. The Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois.
Waldon, Daniel, ed. W. E. B. Du Bois: The Crisis Writings. Greenwich, Connecticut, Fawcett Publishing, 1997.