Duke Ellington's Relationship with the NAACP: celebrated and criticized

By Marissa Baum and Luke Harbur

Within the collection of the American Jazz Museum are thousands of objects preserving the history of jazz and its significance in American culture. Many of these objects boast historical, cultural, and even monetary value. One object in particular (on loan to the American Jazz Museum from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History) has much more profound cultural significance than may appear at first glance: Duke Ellington’s lifetime membership certificate to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).


Duke Ellington's NAACP Certificate of Lifetime Membership. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution.

Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s foremost, largest and most widely recognized civil rights organization. During the early history of the NAACP, 10-year-old Ellington lived in Washington, D.C., with his sister, Ruth, and parents, James and Daisy. Ellington’s parents raised their son on the belief that if you are a skilled achiever, you deserve recognition no matter your race or background. This concept became core to Ellington’s pursuit of musical excellence. His skills earned him respect, despite Jim Crow Era discrimination.

Ellington’s prolific career lasted more than 50 years. Though his popularity had its peaks and valleys, his investment in civil rights organizations, especially the NAACP, remained constant. He hosted his first benefit concert for the NAACP in 1929, and 10 years later Ellington paid $500 for a lifetime membership to the organization. Later, Ellington hosted two more concerts, benefitting New York and Washington, D.C., chapters, raising $9,000 and $15,000, respectively.


Baseball player Jackie Robinson (left), NAACP President Roy Wilkins (center), and Duke Ellington (right) talking during a Spingarn Medal Awards ceremony. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the NAACP Records, Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-77164

In 1959, The NAACP awarded its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, to Ellington “for outstanding and unique musical achievements.” But the public response was one of mass criticism. An editorial in The California Eagle, a prominent Black newspaper, hinted Ellington did not deserve the award. The author argued it should only go to those “who have been active in civil rights, to the exclusion of all other claimants.” The Los Angeles Tribune, another prominent Black newspaper, accused the NAACP of giving the award to Ellington only because of the money he raised for them.

“Lord knows, we love his music, but its sexy growls and moans have never moved us to go out and register to vote, or bowl over a bastion of prejudice,” stated the anonymous Tribune editorial.

For Ellington, the honor symbolized the power of jazz to unify people. During his acceptance speech, he equated jazz with freedom:

“Recently, a friend asked me why I thought American jazz was so much the vogue in other countries. I said, I thought the reason was that jazz means freedom and that today, freedom is the big word around the world. Well, if jazz means freedom, then jazz means peace, because peace can come to mankind only when man is free.”


Duke Ellington’s 1959 Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. Photo courtesy National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution

Ellington rarely directly protested racism, yet he advocated for Black Americans in the way he knew best: through his music. Ellington’s innovative arrangements and orchestrations expressed the full range of the African American experience.

Visit the American Jazz Museum to learn more about him and how other jazz masters gave voice to important issues.