Watching Their Words

As Barack Obama makes history with his presidential run, the NAACP - which can't endorse candidates - must be careful about what it says

July 06, 2008|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Two months ago, NAACP board member Alice Huffman played a pivotal role in a Democratic National Committee meeting that paved the way for Sen. Barack Obama to clinch the party's presidential nomination.

Obama's historic victory - the first for a black candidate - has been celebrated as a civil rights milestone. But when the Illinois senator takes the stage at the NAACP's annual convention in Cincinnati next week, Huffman and other board members of the nation's oldest civil rights organization will not be endorsing him.

As a tax-exempt nonprofit, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is forbidden to engage in partisan politics. Individually, many NAACP members have lauded Obama's nomination as a victory for racial progress. But they also say the organization continues to tread a delicate path, careful not to give the appearance of partisanship, especially since it has been accused of being too political in the past.

"We are of course pleased that an African-American has won his party's nomination, and we wish him well," NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond said in an e-mail. "But that will not cause the NAACP to endorse - or oppose - him."

As the organization prepares to hear next week from both Obama and Sen. John McCain, members such as Huffman acknowledge that this election presents an unusual challenge.

"It is ironic that we do have an African-American running, and as an organization we can't endorse," said Huffman, who is also president of the NAACP's California conference. "But as an individual I can be involved as much as I want. And I have."

Members say the organization, founded in 1909, has a long history of working for civil rights and social justice while staying out of partisan politics. At the convention, nearly 8,000 NAACP members and supporters plan to tackle such issues as mandatory minimum sentencing laws and racial health disparities and mark the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.

During the 1960s, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the NAACP's Baltimore-born Washington lobbyist, coaxed many Republicans into supporting civil rights legislation.

It is in the NAACP's best interest to pressure both political parties for its agenda, said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. If that didn't happen, "it would be completely ineffectual in some administrations and completely taken for granted in others."

An Obama presidency will not put an end to the NAACP's advocacy or criticism, Orfield said. "They will be challenging whoever becomes elected."

Still, the organization has not been immune to criticism.

A month before Election Day 2004, the Internal Revenue Service launched an audit of the NAACP's tax-exempt status. The inquiry stemmed from a strongly worded speech Bond delivered during the organization's July convention in which he blasted the Bush administration's policies. Two years later, the IRS dropped the probe, finding no wrongdoing.

"I think that Julian Bond has a history that could be argued by those of reasonable minds that he has crossed the line," said Mychal Massie, a conservative commentator and chairman of Project 21, an organization of black conservatives. "I would not be surprised if someone were to closely investigate all of their activities and found that in fact they had crossed the line."

Bond maintained that the charge was politically motivated.

"The IRS curiously charged only that I had 'criticized' President Bush's polices - a right that every American has," said Bond, a university professor and former Democratic state lawmaker from Georgia. "That is why ... the IRS dropped the accusation and why it was clear to everyone it was a blatantly partisan attempt to stifle the NAACP's voice."

Huffman's dual roles as a political activist and NAACP member require a balancing act. A staunch Democrat, she served as a superdelegate for Sen. Hillary Clinton and outspoken member of the powerful DNC rules committee. As the committee weighed results of the disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan, it was Huffman who urged for party unity and backed a resolution that was favorable to Obama, whom she now supports.

For the NAACP, she is an opinionated activist who aggressively opposed California's end to race-based college admissions and called same-sex marriage a civil rights issue.

"As an NAACP person, I take off my partisan hat and put on my community hat and say we all have to be proud we have Obama," she said. "This is the product of many years of work. It is wonderful."

Don Cash Sr. an NAACP board member from Columbia, said the organization tries to educate voters on the candidates' positions. "Our job is to inform people about the issues. We believe if we give them the voting record, they will vote their conscience."

Still, some people assume the organization plays favorites. When conducting voter registration drives - a hallmark of the NAACP's voting rights advocacy - Cash is often asked by new registrants: "Who are you voting for?"

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