While attending Atlanta University Johnson became known as an influential campus speaker. He won the Quiz Club Contest in English Composition and Oratory in 1892. The contest topic was "The Best Methods of Removing the Disabilities of Caste from the Negro". In addition, Johnson founded the newspaper the Daily American in 1895 and became its editor. The newspaper concerned both political and racial topics. It was terminated a year later due to financial difficulty. These early endeavors were the start of what would prove to be a long period of activism.
Johnson became further involved with political activism during 1904 when he accepted a position as the treasurer of the Colored Republican Club started by Charles W. Anderson. A year later he became the president of the club. His duties as president included organizing political rallies. During 1914 Johnson became editor of the editorial page of the New York Age, an influential African American weekly newspaper that had supported Booker T. Washington in his propaganda struggle with fellow African American W. E. B. Du Bois during the early 20th century. Johnson's writing for the Age displayed the political gift that soon made him famous.
Employed from 1916 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a field secretary, he built and revived local chapters of that organization. Opposing race riots in northern cities and the lynchings that pervaded the South during and immediately after the end of World War I, Johnson engaged the NAACP in mass demonstrations, such as a silent protest parade of more than ten thousand African Americans down New York City's Fifth Avenue on July 28, 1917. In 1919, he coined the term "Red Summer" and organized peaceful protests against the racial violence of that year.
In 1920 Johnson was elected to manage the NAACP, the first African American to hold this position. While serving the NAACP from 1914 through 1930 Johnson started as an organizer and eventually became the first black male secretary in the organization's history. In 1920, he was sent by the NAACP to investigate conditions in Haiti, which had been occupied by U.S. Marines since 1915. Johnson published a series of articles in The Nation, in which he described the American occupation as being brutal and offered suggestions for the economic and social development of Haiti. These articles were reprinted under the title Self-Determining Haiti. Throughout the 1920s he was one of the major inspirations and promoters of the Harlem Renaissance trying to refute condescending white criticism and helping young black authors to get published. While serving in the NAACP Johnson was involved in sparking the drive behind the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1921.
Shortly before his death, Johnson supported efforts by Ignatz Waghalter, a Polish-Jewish composer who had escaped the Nazis, to establish a classical orchestra of African-American musicians. According to musical historian James Nathan Jones, the formation of the "American Negro Orchestra" represented for Johnson "the fulfillment of a dream he had for thirty years."
James Weldon Johnson died during 1938 while vacationing in Wiscasset, Maine, when the car he was driving was hit by a train. His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.
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