There was a time when the mere mention of the NAACP would stoke fierce emotion. In the minds of most Blacks during the height of the civil rights movement, the NAACP was the gold standard. It was the first organization called when Blacks faced the ugliness of Jim Crow and the oppression of northern living. For many whites from that era, the NAACP was a bunch of rabble-rousers who were subversive and Communist sympathizers. Ironically, the NAACP was considered radical, and was indeed radical for its time; a charge that many people would laughingly dismiss today. Now, one hundred years after its founding the NAACP gathers in New York City this week to celebrate, reflect and recharge its batteries for the work ahead.
While most rational people do not believe that racism is dead, there is an aura of post-racialism in the air now that a Black person occupies the Oval Office. Despite repeated incidents of intolerance and discrimination, the public, and many Blacks, are exhibiting battle fatigue in the fight for racial equality. So, as much as the NAACP is criticized for inaction, a malaise has also set in among the “progressive” community that makes organizing difficult and advocacy an echo chamber. There are rare glimpses of energy among the organization’s base, most recently around the Jena 6 case, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 presidential campaign. It no longer commands center stage as it once did, and once out of the spotlight, the NAACP has been forgotten by many Blacks and natural allies.
It would seem that the organization has weathered its worse storm. There was the ill-fated appointment of Benjamin Chavis as CEO, the sudden departure of Ben Gordon after much excitement over the Verizon executive’s hiring, and internal battles within the NAACP’s Board of Directors. The appointment of Benjamin Jealous has been generally praised but the jury is still out on whether his leadership will result in substantive change.
There are still some unresolved issues that have more to do with the organization’s structure than with its intent or agenda. For one, its Board is large and likely too big to be effective. The organization must also resolve some role confusion between the positions of Chairperson of the Board and CEO. Too often, both officers seem to be competing for a public platform when a singular voice would more effectively communicate the organization’s message. The NAACP must also confront the manner in which it conducts its business, with a volunteer membership base and relatively small, paid professional staff. While it boasts of hundreds of local branches, it might be better served by consolidating some and implementing more regional offices with paid personnel. To transition to the latter will require money and that is something that is often difficult to come by for a membership driven organization. There is talk of creating an endowment for the NAACP and it would be a smart move even with the volatility of the market. One of the ongoing dilemmas of the organization, and many other groups, is that budgets dependent upon corporate or union donations may have the effect of muting advocacy on key issues that involve donors. By substantially beefing up its membership base and creating an endowment, the NAACP can insulate its agenda from being influenced by contributors.
Even though it is regularly blamed for not being focused or having a clear agenda, the NAACP’s advocacy profile is secure if it simply employs a laser like focus on those things that continue to impede equity in society – unemployment, discrimination in the labor market and housing, health care disparities and lack of access to quality education. The larger issue is how it fights those battles in today’s political environment. One answer might be greater use of technology but even so old strategies should not be abandoned. Politics still matter and the NAACP has latent power that is fully exercised could alter the discourse around key issues. The courts remain relevant despite the judiciary’s conservative pall. What has seemingly been forgotten is that the Warren Court was not ideologically aligned, yet through the power of the evidence, the skill of NAACP lawyers, and moral persuasion, the Court ruled correctly in Brown v. Board of Education. The federal judiciary has never truly mirrored the NAACP’s interests so the organization would likely gain new supporters if it plowed ahead in a manner that is strategic but nonetheless vigorous.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the NAACP is a credibility gap with today’s so-called millennial generation. For the most part, these young people have no connection to the organization and are memory deficient when it comes to understanding its history in the context of American indifference towards Blacks. Their limited framework prevents them from undertaking an objective assessment of the organization and thoughtful consideration of its role in the 21st century. The NAACP is often dismissed outright as an artifact that has little meaning to this generation’s reality.
Its fallen stock among young people is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the organization today. At one time youth were a significant presence in the NAACP, with local branches such as Baltimore bursting at the seams with young people. Today, one of the organization’s bright spots, its ACT-SO competition, an incredible display of youthful talents, does not receive the attention it should or get the credit it deserves. If the organization is to have a future, it must find a way to make the case for its relevance to the Twitter and IPod faithful.
As it prepares to begin its second century of service, the NAACP must determine its priorities and find new ways to engage the Black community. In a day and time when it must compete for the attention of the community against a host of distractions, it should be mindful of past lessons that provide that sheer persistence and visibility allowed it to be at the forefront of social change. The tone that the organization has set for its conference this week indicates that the NAACP may be turning a corner and better days might be ahead. Certainly, given economic conditions facing Black Americans there is ample work the organization can do to remain relevant. With a political alignment that now includes a Black President, substantial Black presence in Congress, and a middle class, albeit a fragile layer of prosperity, the NAACP would seem to be well positioned to begin leading another era of progress for people of color in the United States.