Clarence Mitchell Jr., director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP, awarded the Spingarn Medal "for the pivotal role he....played in enactment of civil rights legislation."
The Spingarn Medal owes its existence to Joel Elias Spingarn, who was elected Chairman of the Board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1914. The purpose of this medal is twofold — first to call the attention of the American people to the existence of distinguished merit and achievement among American Negroes, and secondly, to serve as a reward for such achievement, and as a stimulus to the ambition of colored youth.
This prestigious award is in the form of a gold medal that is valued at one hundred dollars. To make certain that this award is continued on an indefinite basis, Joel E. 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.” If this organization fails to continue, the Spingarn Medal is to be managed by the president of Howard or Fisk University.
In 1915, the NAACP set up a committee that consisted of several prominent persons, such as John Hope, who was president of Morehouse College, John Hurst, who was Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and William H. Taft, who was President of the United States of America, to select the recipients of the Spingarn Medal.
The first person to receive this award was Ernest Everett Just, a former professor of biology at Howard University, in 1915. Since that time, there has been a recipient each year except one (1938).