Mfume leads NAACP back into the nation's spotlight

July 18, 1999|By Sheryl McCarthy

WHEN the president of the NAACP announced that the group is filing a class-action lawsuit against gun manufacturers and distributors to end practices that are putting guns in the wrong hands, it was the first big news to come out of the NAACP in years.

The civil rights group has been criticized for being sleepy, irrelevant, out of touch with grass-roots black folks, not to mention its sex scandals and money problems. But it's finally showing signs of life again.

At its annual convention this week in New York City, President Kweisi Mfume also threatened to lead a boycott against the major television networks for putting together a fall lineup of shows that doesn't have a single person of color playing a leading role. Suddenly, the network heads were expressing concern and promising to look into the matter.

"The things I've seen coming out of the convention have been most encouraging," says the Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, who until now shared that same litany of complaints against the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"I am seeing a stir of activity that I'm well pleased with."

An alleged ambulance chaser

One surprise was the presence of the Rev. Al Sharpton on the dais during a meeting this week. Mr. Sharpton, who has been criticized by some mainstream civil rights leaders as being a rabble rousing opportunist, hadn't been to an NAACP convention in years. Not only was he sitting in a place of honor, but he also was the keynote speaker at a young people's dinner.

"I think the NAACP is in the midst of rediscovering itself," Mr. Sharpton told me. "It had lost its cutting edge over the last decade or so. But there have been genuine attempts by Mfume and others to reconnect, to reignite the old flame. I think inviting me to keynote is part of it."

The last time the NAACP was featured so prominently in the news was during a sexual harassment scandal involving its former president, Benjamin Chavis, a few years ago. The group also had major financial problems at the time. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers, was brought in as the new board chairman to clean things up. Three years ago, Mr. Mfume, former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, became president and, more recently Julian Bond, a veteran civil rights leader, replaced Ms. Evers as board chairman. Mr. Mfume and Mr. Bond have re-energized a group that did good things in private but was barely a blip in the public consciousness.

DWB cases

In the past few years, the NAACP has negotiated major legal settlements with the Denny's and Shoney's restaurant chains, which had discriminated against black customers and employees. It is suing New Jersey over alleged racial profiling in traffic stops on the New Jersey Turnpike.

But Mr. Sharpton, not the NAACP, has led the national protest against police brutality. Activist Angela Davis is leading the campaign against the extraordinary number of young black men who are being imprisoned; and unions, parent groups, local activists and state attorneys general have led the attack on school vouchers and the routine stopping and frisking of men of color by police.

Which leads a lot of us to ask: Where is the NAACP? I don't know a single NAACP member.

The convention delegates I spoke to this week all described small NAACP chapters of 100 or fewer members in their communities, with few young members.

Their work includes registering voters, fighting on-the-job discrimination against black employees, raising money for college scholarships and running telephone hotlines where callers can get advice on housing, employment or legal problems. But on the big, national issues, the NAACP often appears to be AWOL.

"Maybe it's because some of the things it does take so many years to complete," said Barbara, a 58-year-old lifetime member from New York.

Like the lawsuit the Yonkers NAACP has been waging for almost 20 years with local officials to desegregate public schools and housing. Its campaign has been partly successful. But it wasn't until Mr. Mfume showed up at police headquarters in New York City in March to get arrested in a Sharpton-led protest against the police shooting of Amadou Diallo that the NAACP once again seemed engaged in an issue people cared about.

Part of the NAACP's problem is that it doesn't operate out of New York or Washington, but out of Baltimore, where it doesn't get covered by the national media.

This convention was a step on the road to a comeback, which is encouraging. Because, as long as racism exists, there will be a role for a dynamic NAACP.

Sheryl McCarthy is a columnist for Newsday.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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