NAACP Whodunit

September 04, 1994|By LEONARD PITTS Jr.

MIAMI — Miami. -- The NAACP has, in perception and perhaps in actual fact, ceased to be of much relevance to black America's struggle. Consider: The venerable civil-rights organization is now generating more passion and excitement than it has in years -- not for some bold new initiative, but for sacking its scandal-tainted executive director, Benjamin F. Chavis.

That says something.

So does this: Some months ago, I was asked by Vibe, a national magazine for young blacks, to assess the NAACP's importance, if any, to its audience. I solicited comments from black 20-somethings on both coasts; speaking in near unanimity, they called the NAACP ''weak'' and said it plays a ''small role'' in the black community.

Charles Zachary of Los Angeles said, ''The A stands for advancement. I don't think they've done much advancing. I think they've become stagnated.''

What the heck has happened to the NAACP? We are talking, after all, about the nation's most storied civil-rights group. From W.E.B. DuBois to Thurgood Marshall to Medgar Evers, and from grandfather clauses to lynch law to separate-but-equal, the NAACP has fielded the giants and fought the battles that reshaped American life. The NAACP paved the way for the black doctors, politicians, singers, scientists and, yes, columnists, who have become part of the American landscape over the last 30 years.

Yet the NAACP is no longer what it once was. Perhaps that's because the ''world'' is no longer what ''it'' was.

The NAACP was born 85 years ago. And all you need to know about how long ago that was is to know what the ''C'' stands for: National Association for the Advancement of ''Colored'' People. Back then, ''colored'' was the polite name for the people the NAACP sought to advance. Colored as in, ''Colored Waiting Room'' . . . ''No Colored Need Apply'' . . . and ''Colored Man Maimed And Lynched By Angry Mob.''

Times have changed, and it's not simply that ''colored people'' have become fightin' words. The barriers the NAACP was born to address have largely fallen. The battle for advancement has grown more subtle even as it has become more desperate. In 1994, the enemy of black achievement is as likely to come from within as from without -- as likely to be a crack-slinging sociopath who lives next door as a bow-tied bigot in a high-rise downtown.

The NAACP has been slow in addressing that shift. Small wonder the Nation of Islam and its charismatic leader Louis Farrakhan dived into the breach -- or, that they were embraced when they did. The Nation listened. The NAACP did not.

That has produced this historical irony: The NAACP -- an organization founded in part by Jews -- was reduced under Dr. Chavis to cozying up to a man infamous for anti-Jewish rhetoric in hopes of wangling a reintroduction to the grass roots of black America. Talk about politics and strange bedfellows.

The NAACP has always had difficulty wrestling with the cult of personality that has at times defined the black American struggle. Almost by definition, an organization is no match for a single magnetic individual. Thus, early on, the NAACP was overshadowed by one of its own founders, the brilliant, mercurial DuBois. And there was outright tension between the organization and a man it regarded as an impudent upstart -- Martin Luther King Jr.

The difference between then and now is that once upon a time, the NAACP had the clout to at least hold its own with charismatic personalities. But in 1994, Mr. Farrakhan's popularity forces it to gulp down 80-odd years of principle and reach out for him in an awkward embrace.

Of course, if you're looking for the ''primary'' culprit in the NAACP's tumble from grace, you must look past both the cults of personality and the changes in the world. Who made the NAACP irrelevant?

I did.

I did it by griping when I should have been participating. I did it all those times I meant to join, then found something more important on which to spend my money. I did it by not being there for the NAACP, then expecting it to magically be there for me, to ride to the rescue like the race police whenever the landlord or the personnel officer or the banker said, ''We don't deal with your kind.''

I did it, but I'm not the only one. There are approximately 30 million blacks in this country, and heaven knows how many more non-blacks who honestly subscribe to the principle of freedom and justice for all. Yet the NAACP has a membership of about half a million people.

Can the NAACP make itself vital again? Candidly, I have my doubts.

But I do know this much: it has more than earned the benefit of those doubts. And if it is to make a new place for itself, it can't do it without me. And you.

My check is in the mail.

F: Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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