NAACP Field Secretary, James Weldon Johnson came to Memphis to investigate the lynching of Ell Persons. Upon his arrival, he met with his friend Robert R. Church, Jr. and a charter for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Memphis Branch was developed. The establishment of the NAACP charter in Memphis marked only the fourth branch in the South. The first NAACP chapter in Tennessee was established in Memphis in June 1917. By 1919 the Memphis NAACP became the largest branch in the South. Robert Church, Jr. was named the first member elected to the NAACP’s National Board of Directors from the South. He helped to establish 68 branches in 14 states and represented over 9,000 members in the South. The Ell Persons lynching and the establishment of the Memphis NAACP changed the political and social structure of the South.
From 1977 to 1993 Dr. Benjamin J. Hooks of Memphis was the NAACP’s executive director. During these years, the Legal Defense Fund invoked the provisions of the Voting Right Act of 1965 to dismantle remaining informal barriers to African American political participation such as the at-large elections for city councils that diluted the votes of racial minorities. Between 1969 and 1990 these efforts helped to increase the number of African American elected officials from 1,200 to 7,000. Under Hooks’ period of leadership, however, it became apparent that increased civil rights and legal protections had not been matched with sufficient improvement in the socioeconomic position of African Americans. The changed political climate of the 1980s and 1990s also included less support for civil rights programs. Despite this, the NAACP supported major civil rights legislation successfully.
The NAACP’s determination to create a better future continues to express the spirit of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ben Hooks, and the thousands of prominent and unnoticed Tennesseans who have supported it.
The Memphis Branch is one of few in the organization to have an Executive Director and paid staff. Some who have held the position include Maxine A. Smith, Tennessee State Representative Johnnie Turner (D), Madeleine Taylor and the current Executive Director is Vickie Terry.