The late, great NAACP

June 09, 1995|By Fredrick McKissack Jr.

THE MERE mention of the NAACP draws all types of responses from young African-Americans -- most of them negative.

For many in the under-35 set, the NAACP is out of touch, out of time and, at least visibly, a non-factor. It's not as though too many members in the hip-hop generation are saying, "Go to a club or go to a NAACP meeting? What a dilemma!"

I know, because I'm one of them. I've felt alienated by the older members of the civil rights movement, many of whom are holding on to the torch of freedom and equality so tightly their knuckles have turned white.

A recent "inaugural" in Washington, for the group's new chairperson, Myrlie B. Evers-Williams, was billed as "an act unprecedented in the NAACP's history." It was attended not by young people -- but by those movers and shakers who know good dinner-time conversation, and more importantly can donate money to help erase a more than $3 million debt.

Is this a sign that the NAACP is in touch with the disadvantage -- holding a big social affair for the well-to-do, middle-aged elite of African-American society, in a town full of poor people?

Shortly after that soiree, former NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis announced a new civil rights coalition called the National African American Leadership Summit. The leadership summit will meet this weekend in Houston to approve a constitution and bylaws as well as establish rules for membership.

Mr. Chavis was fired as NAACP executive director after charges surfaced he spent several hundred thousand dollars of NAACP money to settle a sexual harassment and discrimination suit. But one of the underlying reasons was Mr. Chavis' commitment to making the NAACP more responsive to the young and the poor.

The sexual harassment and discrimination charges may have played loudly in the press, but this was the last straw in a series of events that moved Mr. Chavis away from the establishment. The grumblings started when Mr. Chavis reached out to unify black nationalists, radicals and progressives with more mainstream civil rights organizations. Among those included in various meetings was the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan.

It was this move toward unity that stirred some passion for the cause among black youths, who often looked at the NAACP as an organization that meant nothing in their lives.

But others in the organization weren't so keen on the idea. Indeed, donations among the black middle class and white liberals fell off. A couple of bucks from an excited youngster couldn't make up for the $100 and $1,000 donations held back by the big shots.

Here's the dilemma Mr. Chavis presented: While struggling to bring hope to apathetic youth, who aren't thrilled with the NAACP, he went out to unify the masses, which didn't thrill the major donors.

Originally Mr. Chavis said he wasn't going to compete with the NAACP. But, according to a wire service report, he feels there is "evolving enthusiasm and support" for his new organization.

This is a little like saying there was support and enthusiasm among the conservative white middle class for Ronald Reagan in 1984. Young brothers and sisters looking for a chance to be heard are restless and agitated in the age of Newt, and the NAACP ain't kickin' it.

The National African American Leadership Summit is funded with cash and in-kind donations from about 200 organizations. Mr. Chavis said one of his first goals is to mobilize black men for the ambitious million-man march on Washington scheduled for Oct. 16.

"We're going to have to learn from the mistakes of other organizations," Mr. Chavis said in a recent interview, vowing that his organization "will be unapologetic about trying to promote unity among our people."

The leadership of the NAACP should not view Mr. Chavis' new organization as a minor threat. The leadership summit has the potential to attract thousands of young, intelligent, energetic African-Americans -- the kind the NAACP should be running to grab -- who feel they're being frozen out by an older generation of civil rights leaders.

Myrlie Evers-Williams is struggling to restore integrity to an organization wracked by financial problems. If she succeeds, she deserves all the credit and accolades she can get. At this juncture, the NAACP could find no better leader.

But it's doubtful the NAACP will suddenly embrace Mr. Chavis' ** earlier commitment to unity with black nationalists and progressives, preferring the status quo and little controversy. That spells trouble, since many in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are eligible for duel membership in the American Association for Retired Persons. At some point, the nation's leading civil rights group will have to turn toward youth.

They may not be there.

Fredrick McKissack Jr. is the co-editor of the Progressive Media Project in Madison, Wis., and the author of "Black Diamond: The History of the Negro Baseball Leagues," published by Scholastic Inc.

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