The election last week of Roslyn Brock of Maryland as the new chairwoman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People again marked a generational shift in leadership of the nation's oldest civil rights group. Ms. Brock, 44, and NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, 37, are the youngest to hold their positions in the organization's history, and both have pledged to make it relevant to African-Americans born after the high tide of the civil rights movement.
But how exactly do Ms. Brock and Mr. Jealous intend to signal the new direction in which they want to take the organization? One way would be to embrace President Barack Obama's call for ending the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which forces gay and lesbian soldiers to lie about who they are or face dismissal. The arguments heard today against gays serving openly in the military offer an eerie echo of fears voiced 60 years ago about allowing black soldiers to serve on an equal footing with whites.
When President Harry S. Truman signed the executive order integrating the armed forces in 1948, the decision was hailed by the NAACP as a great step forward in the struggle for equal rights. There's no reason the fight for equal treatment of gays and lesbians in the military shouldn't be part of the NAACP's long tradition of working to level the playing field for all oppressed minorities.
Enlarging the NAACP's civil rights mission to include combating discrimination against gay and lesbian service members might bring Ms. Brock and Mr. Jealous in conflict with their base of supporters among African-American churchgoers, many of whom oppose homosexuality on religious grounds. Ironically, the two young leaders could find themselves obliged to undertake the delicate task of reminding rank-and-file members that the Bible was also once used to justify slavery and segregation. They might also point out that many of the gay soldiers discriminated against by the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy are black.
In any case, dealing with such misgivings will require patience and a sustained effort to convince skeptics that today's challenges require an ever more expansive vision of social justice. (We can't know whether Martin Luther King Jr., if he were alive today, would oppose "don't ask, don't tell" with the same vigor he directed toward the bigotry and discrimination of his own era -- but it's worth noting that his wife, the late Coretta Scott King, was an outspoken advocate of gay rights, including same-sex marriage.)
At the same time, the NAACP needs to bring in a younger cadre of activists whose post-civil-rights-era upbringing has left them both more comfortable with and more committed to the idea of gay rights than their elders.
No one is suggesting any of this will be easy. Sadly, the struggle for equality and justice hardly ever is. But in Ms. Brock and Mr. Jealous, the NAACP has the talent and experience to meet the challenges of a new millennium. Now is the time for them to show the courage of their convictions.
The NAACP is dedicated to ending racial discrimination and prejudice. The NAACP should continue to focus on that mission. There are plenty of other groups dedicated to gay rights.
NACCP leaders must recognize and have learned that equality for only some is equality for none.