NAACP'S future holds conflict between old, new attitudes

Some feel vision should reflect evolving civil rights struggles

December 05, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

In the NAACP's heyday, church ladies used to sign up members every Sunday, and families gave newborns lifetime memberships as baptism gifts.

Today the 95-year-old civil rights group with a history of defending the rights of minorities, grapples to convince young people that it's not their grandmother's organization, while proving to conservatives that civil rights concerns persist half a century after Jim Crow.

Last week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's president, Kweisi Mfume, abruptly resigned after nearly nine years, leaving many to question the group's future.

"This is a very critical juncture," said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, one of the nation's largest with 5,000 members. "Losing Mfume at the beginning of Bush 2 [President Bush's second term] is devastating. Bush is about to wage an all-out assault on affirmative action, Roe v. Wade, and he could bring more than three new members on the Supreme Court. Who is going to protect us from that?"

President Bush - upset about what he believes to be unfair criticism - has declined to meet with NAACP leadership, which has a history of successfully advocating its agenda with presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

And the Internal Revenue Service could take away the group's tax-exempt status, because of complaints that Chairman Julian Bond stepped into partisan politics, with a speech made this summer bashing the Bush administration.

Mondesire praised Mfume's leadership, but was critical of the Baltimore-based national office, saying its tactics are stuck in the past. The group's national leaders rely on dialogue with politicians rather than grassroots organizing, he said.

"Their vision is still too narrow," he said. "It's tied to the old paradigm of the civil rights struggle. But civil rights evolves, like all life.

"We are now in the final stages of the civil rights struggle, which is economic independence," he said. "That's what Martin Luther King fought for near the end of his life. That's where we need to be."

That may be so, but it's hard to generate excitement to fight social problems, particularly among youths, who believe the battles have been won.

"In general, a lot of the issues are more subtle," said Tiffany Williams, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has belonged to the NAACP since she was a child. "There's no Brown v. Board of Education, so sometimes people think that it's not a problem. They won't acknowledge it's a problem until something big happens. And when it happens, the NAACP will be here."

Brown v. Board of Education, which provided the legal fodder to end segregation, is history, but the NAACP must continue to defend civil rights, said Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which released a report critical of Bush's civil rights record.

Although the number of civil rights complaints forwarded to the U.S. Justice Department has remained steady in recent years - about 12,000 annually - federal enforcement of civil rights laws decreased sharply, according to a study released last month from the Transitional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research group at Syracuse University.

The number of criminal prosecutions dropped from 159 in fiscal year 1999 to 84 last year, it found.

"Those people who say there are no civil rights problems, I guess they don't see, they don't read or something - I don't know what to do with those people," Berry said. "But for the other people, who may not see how this organization is going to solve what you know is a problem, the NAACP needs to come up with plans that are more visible.

"They've got the members, but do they have the moxie?"

Some scholars think the situation is so dire that the NAACP must shift into crisis mode.

"I would set a year of decisive action, beginning with Martin Luther King's birthday," said Derrick A. Bell Jr., who was recruited to work at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund by Thurgood Marshall, and is now a professor at New York University Law School. "The main focus would be on poverty and getting people back into the work force through training and insistence that corporations and business do better."

Others think the best way to address social problems such as jobs, health care and education is to rally the NAACP's 500,000 members.

"The health of the organization is defined by the strength of its grass roots," said Robert C. Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, and author of the Encyclopedia of African-American Politics.

"The association should find a way to establish best practices. Look at what the chapters are doing around the country, then go share that with the others," he said.

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