June 29, 1914 – The Spingarn Medal was Established by the NAACP

The Spingarn Medal is a gold medal created in 1914 by Joel Elias Spingarn, who was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), its second president, and chairman of its board from 1913 until his death.

Joel Spingarn

Joel Spingarn

The purpose of this annual award for outstanding achievement by an African American is twofold — first to call the attention of the American people to the existence of distinguished merit and achievement among American blacks, and secondly, to serve as a reward for such achievement, and as a stimulus to the ambition of African American youth.

Spingarn encouraged the works of African American writers during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of intense artistic activity by blacks in the 1920s. Spingarn notably said “”I have a dream…of a unified Negro population” which presaged Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

To make certain that the Spingarn Medal would be awarded on an indefinite basis, Spingarn bequeathed in his will twenty thousand dollars to the NAACP “to perpetuate the lifelong interest of my brother, Arthur B. Spingarn, of my wife, Amy E. Spingarn, and of myself in the achievements of the American Negro.”

Arthur Spingarn, Joel’s brother, was a lawyer with a private practice in New York City. From the beginning of his law career he was interested in advancing the cause of civil rights and improving the condition of American blacks. He joined or advised a number of organizations dedicated to those goals, such as the Circle for Negro Relief, the New York State Commission Against Discrimination, the American Social Hygiene Association, the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association, and the NAACP (of which he was a co-founder).

Arthur Spingarn

Arthur Spingarn

In 1911 he was appointed vice president and chairman of the national legal committee of the NAACP, a position he held until 1940. In 1940 he was elected president of the NAACP, succeeding his brother Joel. He retained the presidency until his retirement in 1966.

From 1940 to 1957 Spingarn also served as President of the NAACP Legal and Educational Fund, Inc. This organization was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the civil rights cases that culminated in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Upon its conclusion, Spingarn and his associates turned their attention to other legal issues involving discrimination in the fields of housing and jobs. The NAACP under his leadership continued to bring to the courts a series of cases designed to overturn longstanding discriminatory practices.

Spingarn and the NAACP were criticized because the president of the organization was a white Jewish man. Some black activists also objected to the strategy of working for change through the slow process of the legal system. Spingarn stated that he understood the militant spirit for reform but rejected their calls for separateness between the races. The NAACP leadership continued to support Spingarn and his approach throughout his career and appointed him to the board of directors even after his retirement from the presidency.

When Spingarn died in 1971, Associate Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall spoke at his funeral, opining, “If it had not been for Arthur Spingarn, we would not have an NAACP today.”

Thurgood Marshall as a young man

Thurgood Marshall as a young man

Amy Spingarn, Joel’s wife, was an artist who gave financial support to struggling black artists, both directly, such as providing money for the university education of Langston Hughes, and indirectly, as when she and her husband bought up issues of black publications and then distributed them for free. She also funded an award offered by the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine for the best poems, plays, or short stories by black artists.

A complete list of Spingarn Medal recipients is here.

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