Is NAACP losing its way?
Working to change the future
NAACP seeks to unite old, new generations in civil rights mission
July 5, 2007
First of two parts
It was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that sent workers deep into the hostile South to ensure that African Americans weren’t made to pay fees, pass tests or otherwise get swindled out of their constitutional right to vote.
It was the NAACP that sent lawyers to the U.S. Supreme Court to successfully fight the notion that schools for black children were equal to the better facilities and newer books provided to white kids.
Now, as the NAACP prepares to open its 98th annual gathering in Detroit this week, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization faces a deepening dilemma: How can it maintain its rich history of crusading against racial discrimination and for social justice while engaging an ever-diversifying constituency?
In its nearly 100 years, the NAACP has cracked open the door to the middle class largely held closed to African Americans through restrictive laws, intimidation and physical violence. But now, some in the very group that grew out of the most successful social justice movement in U.S. history wonder why they need the NAACP.
“The NAACP is out there fighting for what right now?” asked Detroiter Millie Landrum, 66, a lifetime NAACP member. “I know what they used to do. I don’t know what they’re doing now.”
More than 8,000 dues-paying members will descend on Cobo Center starting Saturday to sort through the issues and decide strategies for a host of competing needs. Membership has fallen from a high of 500,000 in 1946 to 300,000 today, even as the nation’s African-American population has doubled to almost 40 million in that time.
The organization is struggling to boost membership, especially among African-American youth, and to fight the erosion of the affirmative action gains of the 1960s.
“We’re an organization in transition. There is still a need for the NAACP, but we have to find a way to reconnect with our community,” said Roslyn M. Brock, chairwoman of the convention. “It’s time to find a resonating message, and what better place than in Detroit, where the question of class and economics, race and education come into play on a daily basis.”
Evaluating progress, setbacks
There is little disagreement that in the last half-century, barriers have been lowered and racial progress has been made in virtually every aspect of American life. Disparities haven’t disappeared, but black Americans are not in the same place today as they once were.
The number of black college students in fall 2004 was 2.3 million, roughly double the number 15 years earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Black households had $679 billion in earned income in 2004, an increase of 3.5% over the $656 billion earned in 2003, according to census statistics.
Largely gone now are the sit-ins, marches and boycotts that defined the NAACP for so many decades. Many members now want the focus to be on issues more relevant today: economic empowerment, HIV/AIDS, and disparities in education and health care.
And race itself no longer is simply black and white. Latinos have overtaken African Americans as the country’s largest racial/ethnic minority and potentially will sap black political clout. The next major social justice movement could well revolve around immigration. Some African Americans, especially lower wage earners, worry that illegal immigrants will take jobs and depress wages.
While not discounting the need to change with the times, Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP’s national board, said the nation’s racial landscape hasn’t been altered enough to abandon the organization’s focus on litigation and political lobbying.
Michigan, California and Washington have ended affirmative action programs in hiring, education and government contracts in recent years. The issue is expected to be put before voters in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma in 2008. Irregularities at the polls in 2000 produced widespread allegations of fraud and disenfranchisement, with nearly half of those erroneously turned away from the polls in Florida being African American. In 2006, just four Fortune 500 CEOs were African American, according to Fortune magazine.
“We stand for the end of racial discrimination in the United States,” said Bond, 67. “I know the majority of the public doesn’t think there’s a need for us. But unless you can convince me that racial discrimination is not a problem in the country anymore, then I don’t see any reason to change our goal and mission.”
Bridging the gap
The overt signs of discrimination — the burning crosses and “Whites Only” signs — have largely disappeared. For many, the concerns now are about the overwhelming social-service needs of the poorest African Americans. This year’s convention is being held in a city that is more than 80% black and where 31% of the population lives in poverty, nearly half are functionally illiterate and the jobless rate in May was 12.7%, compared with 6.6% for the state.
While the NAACP lobbies politicians, files lawsuits and negotiates with corporations, some fault it for not feeding hungry people and housing homeless ones.
At the same time, African Americans younger than 30 — the backbone of the organization in its heyday — don’t see the visible signs of racism and aren’t as engaged in the struggle, said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP.
“They don’t sit at television at 6 o’clock and watch dogs biting” civil rights demonstrators, Anthony said. “They see Oprah on television. They see Kobe Bryant and Shaquille. They see Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. It makes it more difficult to get them to understand that the struggle ain’t over.
“We as African Americans have failed to transfer the struggle into our children.”
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. The NAACP over the years has held membership drives through its 400 youth and college branches and 1,600 adult branches. A 2004 billboard campaign in 46 states was aimed at 25- to 40-year-olds.
David Williams, 19, a computer engineering student at Oakland Community College, said he understands more about the struggle after last year’s passage by Michigan voters of Proposal 2, a move he said he considers a setback. The ballot initiative barred the use of race, gender or ethnicity in government hiring and contracts and public university admissions.
“I’d like to see affirmative action back in Michigan and help for the youth,” said Williams, who is black and lives in Highland Park.
But Williams says he is too busy to join the NAACP while working two part-time jobs and taking classes. “It’s not that it’s not important; it’s just not a main priority right now,” he said. “Right now, getting my education is my way of fighting for my civil rights.”
Melvin (Butch) Hollowell, general counsel of the Detroit NAACP branch and a partner in the Butzel Long law firm in Detroit, said the challenge is to bridge the gap between the old-line rights generation and today’s young people.
“They don’t have the same connection that their parents and grandparents had. Nevertheless, discrimination is alive and kicking in our society,” Hollowell said. “In Michigan, we are one of the tops in the country in hate crimes. When we look at the assault on affirmative action, that’s a national phenomenon. Let’s not kid ourselves, we’ve got a big battle on our hands.”
While waging the battle for social justice, the NAACP has battled internal demons.
In the last three years, as corporate donations and membership languished, it has used about $10 million from its rainy-day fund to cover budget deficits. Last month, the NAACP said it will cut about 40% of its national staff and close its seven regional offices, including one in Southfield, to cover the shortfalls.
“The big picture for organizations like ours is that many of them are experiencing financial difficulties,” Bond said. “Ours, for better or for worse, are more public. There has been a falloff of public support. We began to dip into our reserves, which is always a bad, bad practice.”
In March, after just 19 months at the helm as NAACP president and chief executive officer, Bruce S. Gordon stepped down because of disagreements with the 64-member board on the best way to run the organization. Gordon, 61, a former Verizon executive, proposed expanding into social service areas.
Gordon acknowledged in 2006 that the NAACP had far fewer than the 500,000 members it had claimed since 1946 and announced a goal of boosting membership to 1 million by 2009. According to an internal memo published in the news media, the NAACP had just 178,000 members in 1982.
“We’ve always had white members — our founders were black and white,” Bond said. “Our membership is Hispanic, black, white. Though we don’t keep those kinds of records, we like to say that in the NAACP, we think colored people come in all colors. Anybody who shares our values is welcome.”
When Gordon resigned, the NAACP was in the midst of a huge membership drive and fund-raising effort to relocate the organization’s Baltimore headquarters to Washington, D.C. The $20-million move has been delayed because of lackluster fund-raising and an inability to find a buyer for the Baltimore property. Gordon also had begun a capital campaign and was pursuing corporate donors, with the goal of raising $100 million by 2009, the NAACP’s centennial. The organization is still searching for his replacement.
Board members say they are progressively fine-tuning the organization. They recently commissioned a national survey of African Americans — members and others — to ask what the goals of the organization should be. They said they hope to roll out some of the findings at the Detroit convention.
“We’re asking the hard questions,” said Brock, the national board vice chair. “This is the only way we can be real and be responsive. You open yourself up to public scrutiny, and then you change.”
Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland professor of government and politics and director of the African American Leadership Institute, said in previous years, the NAACP veered off its mission and attempted to take on poverty and employment programs better suited for the Urban League. Walters said he believes it is on the right path today. It still needs to deal with traditional civil rights issues, even as newer concerns such as immigration surface, he said.
“Especially in the most conservative era of American history, we need the NAACP to continue to be a civil rights organization,” Walters said.
There is little debate that the mission in Detroit, at least, will be to establish policies and strategies to address issues such as economic empowerment, juvenile justice, health care, affirmative action, civic engagement, equality in education and voting rights for minorities and felons.
The question remains what the priorities will be.
“We have to be clear that we can’t do everything,” Hollowell said. “What we do do is world class. And we have to continue that. We can’t be all things to all people.”
Contact SUZETTE HACKNEY at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.