THE NATIONAL Association for the Advancement of Colored People, just nine years shy of its 100th anniversary, was formed to secure full citizenship rights for the nation's African-American population. In this endeavor, it has been exemplary.
When the organization has been right, it has been very right - NAACP lawyers argued successfully to end all-white primaries and segregated education. But oh, does the NAACP commit lulus when it's wrong.
In the 1920s, the NAACP aided and abetted federal government officials in trumping up questionable mail-fraud charges against black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, who was eventually deported.
The next decade found the NAACP wanting to bounce from its ranks one W.E.B. DuBois, a founding member of the organization who also edited its magazine, The Crisis. DuBois' crime was advocating that blacks develop and build their own institutions instead of integrating white ones. To the knee-jerk integrationists in the NAACP, DuBois had committed something akin to heresy.
The 1950s found the organization hankering to boot Harry Moore, the leader of the Florida NAACP chapter, who had worked tirelessly for equal rights and had registered black voters since the 1930s.
Last week, the esteemed civil rights organization went from NAACP to NAA-Sloppy. What the organization's National Voter Fund did was not only slipshod, it was downright sneaky. Details are below, but background is in order.
Two years ago, three white racists chained a black man named James Byrd to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to death, decapitating the Jasper, Texas, man in the process. The three were tried and convicted of murder. Two are on Texas' death row. The other received a life sentence. Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush was governor of Texas at the time.
On Oct. 25, a television ad depicting a pickup truck dragging a chain was broadcast across the nation. A woman's voice is heard in the ad. Renee Mullins, Byrd's daughter, is talking. She tells viewers about her father's murder and how she appealed to Governor Bush for his support in passing hate-crime legislation in Texas. Bush, who doesn't support hate-crime legislation, refused. That, according to Andrea Pringle, the communications director of the Voter Fund, is how the 30-second spot went.
Some charged that the NAACP had played dirty pool. As a nonprofit organization, the NAACP is tax-exempt and is not allowed to endorse political candidates. But some saw the spot as a backhanded endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Others, such as WBAL-AM radio talk show host Bruce Elliott, called the ad "hateful."
Pringle insisted it was none of the above.
"It's just basically telling the story of who Renee Mullins is, how her father was killed and how she went to George Bush and asked him to support hate-crimes legislation," Pringle said yesterday. Asked about charges that the spot was an under-the-table endorsement of Gore and that the Voter Fund decided to deliberately run it a mere 13 days before the election, Pringle responded:
"It's not true. It's an ad of Renee Mullins telling of the need for hate-crimes legislation." The spot was no different, Pringle said, from other NAACP issue-oriented ads on education, racial profiling and registering to vote. Assuming - and believe me, this is a stretch - that we buy Pringle's claim that the ad is just a promo for the need of hate-crime legislation that just happened to run right before a close election in which Bush is a candidate, the scenario prompts another question: What additional sanctions could hate-crime legislation have added to the sentences of two men who received the death penalty?
"You never know what additional deterrents [hate-crime legislation] might bring about," Pringle said. "It's important the entire community make a statement, set a tone, that hate crimes will not be tolerated. There's nothing on the books that has any teeth that will address that issue."
You would think that an organization whose national headquarters is in Baltimore would have chosen hate crimes closer to home to make that point. Sammy Thamavong, an Asian-American from Thailand, was beaten nearly to death by two black teens a few months ago near Patterson Park. Kenneth Lee, a Korean-American whose son Joel Lee was shot to death by a black man seven years ago in Northeast Baltimore, is still pleading for justice. It's infuriating that Mullins, who received justice, uses the NAACP while Kenneth Lee has received none.
The perpetrators of these despicable acts have not been charged with hate crimes. The NAACP, so quick to chide Bush for not supporting hate-crime legislation, has uttered not one public word on the beating of Thamavong or the death of Joel Lee. But you have to harbor a sneaking suspicion that if conservative Republicans, not liberal Democrats, were running the show in Baltimore, the NAACP couldn't point the finger of blame sharply or quickly enough.