I am knocking and knocking and knocking on the front door of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in the country; and once upon a time, Baltimore had one of the largest and most active chapters.
As I knock, an elderly man calls to me from across the street. "Hey!" he shouts. "Hey!" he yells again. "Ain't no use your banging on their door, my man. Ain't nobody there." He looks to be in his middle 60s -- a tough, wiry fellow in oil-smeared work clothes and heavy shoes.
"You sure?" I ask, rattling the door knob one last time.
"Keep on knocking, then," he says, turning his back on me and continuing on his way.
So then I travel back toward the center of town to the local headquarters of the second oldest civil rights organization in the country, the Urban League.
The contrast between the two is startling.
The Baltimore branch of the NAACP is housed in a modest, two-story brick building on East 26th Street underneath a fading, hand-painted sign. The organization has fallen on hard times and it shows. The white-washed brick front is chipped in several places. Some of the windows are boarded up. George Buntin, the branch's respected executive director, and most of his staff have been laid off due to budget cuts. And the Baltimore branch, like the national headquarters in West Baltimore, seems in a state of continued financial crisis and organizational disarray. The programs it offers, such as its ACT-SO educational Olympics, are run by volunteers.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Urban League operates in regal splendor from its offices in the historic Orchard Street Church, once an important stop on the Underground Railroad; and renovated two years ago for $3.7 million. From these offices, the Baltimore Urban League and its paid staff conduct a Youth Institute, which prepares teens for their G.E.D.; a financial management class for low income prospective home buyers; an employment counseling center; and a Young Fathers/Prospective Fathers program to help prepare young men to meet their responsibilities as dads.
"In many ways, the NAACP has become a victim of its own success," says Meldon Hollis, the city attorney who became chair of the Baltimore Urban League board last year. Mr. Hollis notes that the NAACP, founded in 1909, focused its energies on legal and political issues. The National Urban League, founded in 1910, provided transitional social services to the flood of African Americans migrating to the major cities from the rural South.
"For most of its history," says Mr. Hollis, "the NAACP was far more visible and enjoyed far more support. That's because its mission, fighting against lynching and discriminatory laws, was very clear. During that period, the Urban League remained in the background. But with the legal successes of the 1950s and 1960s, it hasn't really been very clear where the NAACP ought to go next. Meanwhile, the need for transitional services -- job training, housing, health services -- for disenfranchised African Americans has become much more in focus."
Also, says Mr. Hollis, the Urban League has always included the community's corporate leaders on its board. The Baltimore Urban League board includes representatives of Baltimore Gas and Electric, Nationsbank, Procter & Gamble and Westinghouse. Because of this strategy, he says, corporate support for Urban League programs has been much more consistent.
Still, the need for both organizations remains. For instance, the Republican majority in Congress has said it will eliminate or drastically reduce federal funding to Urban League programs. And states with conservative governors and legislators -- the number of those states increased after last November's elections -- have traditionally been hostile to efforts to empower the disenfranchised.
The Urban League -- and the poor, the powerless, and the disenfranchised that the Urban League serves -- will need someone lobbying on its behalf in Washington and in state capitals across the country.
Who will it turn to? Who provided that function in the past? Why, the NAACP. It is not yet time to let that venerable organization die.