Taking the lead

July 19, 2006

Bruce S. Gordon, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was right on the money this week when he told the organization's members to look inward - not outward - for solutions to problems that continue to plague the black community. But his message of personal responsibility should not be seen as a bow to the conservative mantra that government has no obligation to help even the odds for success for individuals who have been left behind. Rather, it should be seen as a mature shift by the venerable civil rights organization to take back the lead rather than be content to rest on laurels or get hung up on someone else's agenda.

"We have the ability to take control of our lives, our futures and our condition," he told the crowd, sounding not like a helpless victim but like someone taking charge of his own fate.

Mr. Gordon rightly noted that African-Americans should be focused on reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which recently passed the House of Representatives and will soon be debated in the Senate. He also pointed to increasing rates of HIV/AIDS that are devastating black communities, but that some black religious leaders have shied away from. Similarly, black-on-black crime has ravaged neighborhoods in cities such as Washington, where NAACP members are meeting, and Baltimore, where the organization is headquartered.

Such grim realities have been largely ignored by the Bush administration. But that should not stop the NAACP, with its network of local branches, from tackling AIDS, and not just by insisting that members be tested but also by speaking out against risky behaviors that lead to the disease. The organization could also expand its work with corporations to secure even more internships, mentoring and other opportunities that would help keep young people headed in the right direction.

Even though Mr. Bush is finally appearing before the group, after refusing to do so since before he was elected in 2000, Mr. Gordon made it clear that members should look to themselves to solve their own problems. That doesn't change the fact that government can - and should - help those who have difficulty helping themselves. But Mr. Gordon is absolutely right that it's not Mr. Bush but committed members - and a strong leader - who can keep the NAACP "relevant and powerful."

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