NAACP claims swelling ranks

November 28, 1993|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Staff Writer

Membership in the NAACP has grown about 20 percent -- with half of the new members 25 years old or younger -- since a change in executive directors in April, two leaders said yesterday.

The increase in members since the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. became the group's executive director was first declared yesterday in impromptu remarks by Lewis Myers Jr., national deputy director, at a Baltimore chapter event. Dr. Chavis later affirmed the figures.

The claimed increase is interesting because one of the reasons Dr. Chavis was selected over other candidates for the high-profile job was to make the NAACP, which many said had become entrenched, more appealing to younger people.

"Our children are coming back home," Mr. Myers told a group of more than 100 people who attended a breakfast yesterday that is sponsored annually by the Baltimore City branch of the NAACP.

With the 115,000 members who joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People since April, the total active membership is at 615,000, he said.

"The overall growth is in direct response to an aggressive recruitment campaign," Dr. Chavis said in an interview later in the day. He was not present at the Baltimore event. "This is a national campaign to revitalize the image of the NAACP."

That campaign has included a song produced by the NAACP's Detroit chapter, called "Come Back Home to the NAACP," which carries "an upbeat Motown sound," Dr. Chavis said. The civil rights organization also has improved computer systems and personal contact with several of the 2,108 local NAACP chapters, he said.

George N. Buntin Jr., executive director of the Baltimore City chapter, said he did not know what the figures are in terms of local growth, but added, "My sense is that our membership has been increasing."

"These new young members will be able to effect change," Mr. Buntin said.

Dr. Chavis, who was picked to succeed the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, said he wants to reach a goal of 1 million active members by 1996. He said he plans to give a status report on the NAACP's growth and development in April.

One source of active members is the group's list of 1.5 million inactive members, which the organization plans to target starting in January, Dr. Chavis said.

In the meantime, the NAACP will continue its programs, which heavily target the younger crowd -- those in college and high school, where Dr. Chavis said some of the organizations most "vibrant" chapters are.

Since being picked for the executive director post, Dr. Chavis has sponsored summits with youth gang leaders in Los Angeles and Chicago, and lobbied President Clinton for an economic stimulus plan that would provide summer jobs for inner-city youth.

At 45, Dr. Chavis is the NAACP's youngest executive director. He joined the organization at age 12.

Because of those factors, Dr. Chavis is drawing not just the traditional, older preachers and pillars of the community, but young people, Mr. Myers said.

"They can identify with him," he said.

But the younger recruits have not turned attention from what the organization views as its primary foundation -- the morals and teachings of the black church, said another NAACP national officer.

The Rev. Julius Caesar Hope, NAACP national director of religious affairs who was the keynote speaker at yesterday's breakfast, said that survival of the 84-year-old organization depends on a strong link with the church.

"We complain about the black church and what it has not done," said Mr. Hope, pastor of New Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. "The NAACP was born in the black church."

Mr. Hope called on NAACP members to give more support to black churches by sending their children to services and vacation Bible schools, and by putting more trust in the clergy. That support of the church might prompt more support for the NAACP, he said.

"We must renew the fellowship" between the black church and the NAACP, Mr. Hope said. "The biggest thing we [black people] own is the black church."

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