The original title of the journal was The Crisis: A Record of The Darker Races. From 1997 to 2003, it appeared as The New Crisis: The Magazine of Opportunities and Ideas, but the title has since reverted to The Crisis. The title derives from the poem "The Present Crisis" by James Russell Lowell. Published monthly, the journal by 1920 had a circulation that had reached 100,000 copies. Du Bois proclaimed his intentions in his first editorial:
The object of this publication is to set forth those facts and arguments which show the danger of race prejudice, particularly as manifested today toward colored people. It takes its name from the fact that the editors believe that this is a critical time in the history of the advancement of men. …Finally, its editorial page will stand for the rights of men, irrespective of color or race, for the highest ideals of American democracy, and for reasonable but earnest and persistent attempts to gain these rights and realize these ideals.
Predominantly a current-affairs journal, The Crisis also included poems, reviews, and essays on culture and history. Du Bois' initial position as editor was in line with the NAACP's liberal programme of social reform and racial equality, but by the 1930s Du Bois was advocating a form of black separatism. This led to disputes between Du Bois and the NAACP resulting in his resignation as editor in 1934. He was replaced by Roy Wilkins.
Although The Crisis was officially an organ of the NAACP, Du Bois had a large degree of control over the periodical's expressed opinion. Du Bois wrote in Dusk of Dawn (1940) that he intended for The Crisis to represent his personal opinions:
I determine to make the opinion of the Crisis a