A New Approach to Civil Rights

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

February 22, 1992|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

For the second time in as many weeks, this unsettling point comes home: Black History Month is a time for celebration, but this month's news is too strange to permit much celebration. W. E. B. DuBois is to be commemorated on a stamp next week, but the NAACP he helped to build is rent with division. Thurgood Marshall's triumph in Brown v. Board of Education has justly entered the history books, but sadly the nation's greatest civil-rights lawyer has lived to see his substantive achievements everywhere under attack.

Many younger blacks ask why we still need an NAACP. Its leaders, in trumpeting the victories of the past, seem to them mired in arguments that mean little in an era geared to economics. In squabbling over succession in office, the 93-year-old organization's leaders seem more focused on their own space in the limelight than the shrinking space civil rights is allowed in an America convinced it has already done what's right for blacks.

But as Benjamin Hooks has observed, there always have been fights, within and without the movement's formal organs. Adam Clayton Powell didn't like being upstaged by an upstart Martin Luther King, many of whose accomplishments would not have been possible without the hard fights Powell won earlier. DuBois himself had bruising conflicts, some with opponents who had power in the NAACP. And it's still true that you only have such fights when an organization is alive and has agenda points still to make.

What must also be recognized is that the critics have justice in their position, too.

It is not necessary to pick a side in the dispute between the national president Hazel Dukes and the NAACP board chairman William F. Dixon to recognize that the dispute hurts all. Nor is it fruitful to speculate on who will succeed Executive Director Hooks, whose 15-year tenure began when the nation still had a visible commitment to equal opportunity but comes to an end as racism reasserts itself in law, government and social relations.

What is needed today is a recognition by leaders, especially in the biggest and oldest civil-rights organization, that today's racism cannot easily be fought with mass demonstrations. Housing discrimination of the kind shown in the University of Chicago ''hypersegregation'' reports requires sophisticated attack. Banking discrimination such as that laid bare in the Atlanta Constitution's Pulitzer Prize series can only be met by aggressive policing of the Community Reinvestment Act. Job discrimination of the kind that made the ''glass ceiling'' visible to the Labor Department cannot be affected by the signing of pledges and the granting of scholarships.

And it goes without saying that a Supreme Court committed to refusal to enforce the law and the Constitution on behalf of blacks, women and other minorities mandates a return to the think tank. A new kind of civil-rights thrust is needed.

There is strength in the edifice of civil rights, to be sure. Compare today's black elected officials to the few in the bad old days of the 1950s. The dramatic growth in black college graduates, a direct reflection of the success of the 1960s, is another example. And there would be few black executives to challenge that glass ceiling without passage of the equal employment opportunity laws to open the pipeline to corporate careers.

What's needed now is a new set of blueprints. The court-led attack on civil rights is forcing new legislative battles anyway. And the residue of the Voting Rights Act, a significant corps of black electors in the nation's heartland, puts a critical floor under any new thrust. They not only can keep electing black officers, they can make some of the worst obstructionists pay.

What is not needed is more reports on the depth of the problem. The Urban League's ''State of Black America'' reports are enough. What's needed is a new breed of lobbyist, a negotiator who can hurt discriminators in the arenas they care most about: banking regulation, stockholders' meetings, the board room, the sales meeting.

Politics will always have a role, and the rhetoric of fairness will always have its place. But as the century the NAACP helped to make winds down, better ways must be found to bring in the talents of the generation now mainly on the sidelines in the civil-rights debate. That cohort, sprinkled liberally in academia, in corporate, scientific and technical and public-policy arenas, is proof of success in the hard fights of the past. What we need now is a new NAACP, re-energized for the hard fights coming over the horizon.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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