The NAACP only hurts itself . . . The wooing of Minister Farrakhan

May 24, 1994|By Jack Greenberg

NEW YORK — AS THE director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund from 1961 to 1984, I am often asked why the NAACP has wooed Minister Louis Farrakhan, Prof. Leonard Jeffries and the rapper Sister Souljah.

One apparent explanation is that because of its success the NAACP -- which is separate from the Defense Fund -- has yielded its central, mainstream role in the black community to black elected officials. They are now the community's legitimate representatives.

The organization is thus trying to renew itself by overtures to other seemingly ascendant leadership forces.

While I certainly did not foresee it last year, this strategy should have been no surprise, given the background of Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., who succeeded Benjamin L. Hooks as leader of the NAACP.

He was reared in the confrontational politics of the 1960s and 1970s. As one of the "Wilmington 10," he spent more than four years in prison for firebombing a white-owned grocery store, a crime he did not commit. With the Legal Defense Fund's assistance, the conviction was overturned.

Mr. Chavis has been reaching in various directions to try to expand the NAACP's influence. Unfortunately, he has turned to such separatists as the Nation of Islam and Kwame Toure -- formerly Stokely Carmichael.

After a decline, the organization's membership may have grown a startling 24 percent, as it claims. But Mr. Chavis' courtship of the black community's fringes -- militants and leftists -- and their attacks on many groups (particularly Jews) that had contributed significantly to NAACP victories are of course driving those groups away.

In the early days of the civil rights struggle, blacks and their allies had virtually no national political influence. Southern congressmen, who were returned to office term after term by a one-party, one-race political system, used seniority rules to block meaningful civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching bills.

That's why the black leadership turned to the courts. This led to major victories, including Brown vs. Board of Education, the school-desegregation decision handed down 40 years ago last week.

Today, as a consequences of those victories and the civil rights legislation that came afterward, blacks are involved in the political process as never before. There are 40 blacks in Congress and many black mayors, judges, city council and school board members across the country

The NAACP, which played such an important role in bringing political power to blacks, is no longer their principal champion. Many young blacks think it is ineffective and irrelevant to their concerns and needs. This has weakened the organization, which is trying to develop a new identity that will attract them.

Many old issues such as education, jobs and voting remain, and new brutal social problems have developed, especially drugs, violence, single-parent households and other legacies of racism that ravage inner cities. A new generation of blacks has turned for solutions to those whom the NAACP is wooing.

Some such as Mr. Farrakhan and Professor Jeffries of the City University of New York and their racist messages have attracted large followings among blacks who are too young to have been involved in mainstream politics or too politically unsophisticated to think critically about important issues.

An alliance with them may seem to offer a tantalizing opportunity for membership-building and new influence.

But such "gains" -- if they are real -- come only at the price of driving away the interracial support that has long been essential for political success on minority issues.

After the Supreme Court handed down its Brown ruling, the NAACP and other groups, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- and the Congress of Racial Equality helped create the broad front that came to be known as the civil rights movement.

But SNCC and CORE turned separatist, failed to get much support in the black community and have faded, as have the Black Panthers.

It is depressing that those to whom the NAACP has turned are not mere separatists but classic demagogues who try to gain support by pandering to xenophobia -- by preaching anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia.

Oddly, the Ku Klux Klan preached these very hatreds. It's as if these demagogues are saying that all the ugly stereotyping that our oppressors have long used against us are valid -- except that they apply not to us but to others.

It will be not only unprincipled but also impractical for the NAACP to keep hitching itself to low-road demagogues. African-Americans soon will no longer be the largest minority. There will be more Hispanics than blacks, and other groups, such as Asians, are rapidly growing.

Blacks who want a role in continuing to perfect the ideal of a pluralistic democracy that respects the rights of all its citizens will need to be part of a broadly based alliance.

I hope that the NAACP will resume its old, honored role. To do so, it will have to broaden its reach, depart from its embrace of racist demagogues who stigmatize and exclude others. It should reconstitute its old friendships. Otherwise, it may not survive and prosper in the new political environment.

Those -- such as Mr. Chavis -- who have lived and suffered for the civil rights movement for so many decades have the chance to achieve their greatest success by teaching the young what they have learned by hard experience.

Black racism is different from black pride -- it is the counterpart of white racism.

Jack Greenberg, professor of law at Columbia University, is author of "Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution."

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