Founded in 1935 by Mary McLeod Bethune as a national voice for black women's organizations, NCNW signed onto the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, under the leadership of Dorothy Height from Mississippi. As a woman, Height was excluded as a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, propelling NCNW to organize its own initiative to support the work of voting rights activists in Mississippi. This work evolved into securing 1960s-era War on Poverty funds for black women in Mississippi and funding community organizing in more than a dozen states.
In the 1970s, inspired by the Black Power Movement, NCNW changed its slogan from “Faith, Leadership, Culture” to “Commitment, Unity, and Self-Reliance.”
NCNW's reputation among white politicians and funders as a moderate, gradualist organization helped secure funding for additional black power projects in the Mississippi Delta. Dorothy Height "could handle the bureaucrats in the fashion that she needed to handle them, in order to win the day for the cause," proclaimed Owen Brooks, who headed Delta Ministry, a grassroots anti-poverty group in Mississippi.
From 1943 until 1966, the NCNW headquarters and the private residence of its founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, was located at 1318 Vermont Avenue. The organization later moved to 1346 Connecticut Avenue in Dupont Circle before establishing its headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1995 where it remains today.