It started out as a “movement,” a meeting of Black intellectuals, white feminists, clergy, and concerned whites in Niagara, New York and evolved into a modern creation, the civil rights organization. Today the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) turns 100. It has been a remarkable run for an organization that has been at the center of the most significant social transformation our nation has experienced in its history. In many ways the N.A.A.C.P. has been the most successful advocacy organization, bar none, in history and one in which other movements, including the African National Congress in South Africa and Poland’s Solidarity, has borrowed from to advance their causes.
Today the often-maligned N.A.A.C.P. is criticized as being irrelevant and out-of-date by a generation of Blacks who, ironically, are enjoying the benefits of the century’s worth of struggle the organization embodies. If it is guilty of anything, it is not tooting its horn enough and communicating the connection between the improved conditions for Black Americans in the 21st century to the judicial and legislative victories it has achieved. While racial discrimination persists, our nation without the N.A.A.C.P. would be significantly less tolerant toward Black Americans. Had it not been for the N.A.A.C.P. generations of Black Americans would likely not had access to higher education and economic opportunity that grew the Black middle class. Much of the success we tout in our community today is attributable to the diligence and perseverance of the N.A.A.C.P. and its fellow civil rights organizations that championed our rights during an era of open hostility toward our very presence in our nation.
The N.A.A.C.P.’s history is a case study for organizations who seek to use the judicial and legislative branches, and protest politics, to advance an agenda. The conventional wisdom we hear today is that progressive politics is dead because of a hostile political environment. Yet, the N.A.A.C.P. scored victory after victory during a period of time when it was open season on Blacks. Its national leadership – Walter White, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, and Clarence Mitchell – never allowed this nation to walk away from the principles embodied in the Constitution. In the face of Jim Crow, lynchings, and rampant discrimination, the N.A.A.C.P. stayed in the courts, before unsympathetic and outright racist jurists, and on Capitol Hill, reinforcing its primary objective to secure citizenship rights for Black Americans.
We have heard all the complaints about the organization. It’s too old. It’s too middle class. It doesn’t do anything. It’s controlled by white interests. Yet, how many organizations committed to our community, besides churches and Black colleges, reach 100 years of service? The revisionist history that has taken hold in our community dismisses the fact that N.A.A.C.P. members marched when it was dangerous to do so, its lawyers risked their lives to bring lawsuits, local chapters operated under the threat of violence, and its national leaders were consistently subjected to death threats. It was the backbone of the civil rights movement and its members filled the streets in some of the most memorable mass demonstrations of that era, including the 1963 March on Washington. Yes, its leadership was “middle class” but its orientation was toward justice and opportunity for the masses of Black Americans.
The organization still has a valuable role to play despite the criticism it receives. In a nation where Black poverty is still at unacceptably high levels, incarceration rates among Black men is high, HIV/AIDS threatens our very existence, and gun violence terrorizes our communities, the N.A.A.C.P. can provide a much needed voice in the national and local debates around these issues, as it was on matters of civil rights decades ago. It has an opportunity to attract a new generation of Blacks, and whites, who are committed to equal opportunity under the guidance of its new leader, Benjamin Jealous. If the organization embraces new social networking media, it has an opportunity to build a grassroots network equal to and more likely larger than its present membership.
We salute the N.A.A.C.P. on this very special anniversary and urge all Americans to support its continued efforts to build a better America. How can you help? You can get a paid membership or a life membership, or volunteer with a local branch. Now is not the time to turn its back on an organization that never turned its back on us.