DETROIT—It was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that sent workers deep into the hostile South to ensure that African Americans weren’t made to pay fees, pass tests or otherwise get swindled out of their constitutional right to vote.
It was the NAACP that sent lawyers to the U.S. Supreme Court to successfully fight the notion that schools for black children were equal to the better facilities and newer books provided to white kids.
Now, as the NAACP prepares to open its 98th annual gathering in Detroit, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization faces a deepening dilemma: How can it maintain its rich history of crusading against racial discrimination and for social justice while engaging an ever-diversifying constituency?
In its nearly 100 years, the NAACP has cracked open the door to the middle class largely held closed to African Americans through restrictive laws, intimidation and physical violence. But now, some in the very group that grew out of the most successful social justice movement in U.S. history wonder why they need the NAACP.
“The NAACP is out there fighting for what right now?” asked Millie Landrum, 66, a lifetime NAACP member. “I know what they used to do. I don’t know what they’re doing now.”
More than 8,000 dues-paying members were to descend on Detroit’s Cobo Center starting Saturday to sort through the issues and decide strategies for a host of competing needs. Membership has fallen from a high of 500,000 in 1946 to 300,000 today, even as the nation’s African American population has doubled to almost 40 million in that time.
The organization is struggling to boost membership, especially among African-American youth, and to fight the erosion of the affirmative action gains of the 1960s.
“We’re an organization in transition. There is still a need for the NAACP, but we have to find a way to reconnect with our community,” said Roslyn M. Brock, chairwoman of the convention. “It’s time to find a resonating message, and what better place than in Detroit, where the question of class and economics, race and education come into play on a daily basis.”
There is little disagreement that in the last half-century, barriers have been lowered and racial progress has been made in virtually ev.ery aspect of American life. Disparities haven’t disappeared, but black Americans are not in the same place today as they once were.
The number of black college students in fall 2004 was 2.3 million, roughly double the number 15 years earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Black households had $679 billion in earned income in 2004, an increase of 3.5 percent over the $656 billion earned in 2003, according to census statistics.
Largely gone now are the sit-ins, marches and boycotts that defined the NAACP for so many decades. Many members now want the focus to be on issues more relevant today: economic empowerment, HIV/AIDS, and disparities in education and health care.
And race itself no longer is simply black and white. Latinos have overtaken African Americans as the country’s largest racial/ethnic minority and potentially will sap black political clout. The next major social justice movement could well revolve around immigration. Some African Americans, especially lower wage earners, worry that illegal immigrants will take jobs and depress wages.
While not discounting the need to change with the times, Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP’s national board, said the nation’s racial landscape hasn’t been altered enough to abandon the organization’s focus on litigation and political lobbying.
Michigan, California and Washington have ended affirmative action programs in hiring, education and government contracts in recent years. The issue is expected to be put before voters in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma in 2008. Irregularities at the polls in 2000 produced widespread allegations of fraud and disenfranchisement, with nearly half of those erroneously turned away from the polls in Florida being African American. In 2006, just four Fortune 500 CEOs were African American, according to Fortune magazine.
“We stand for the end of racial discrimination in the United States,” said Bond, 67. “I know the majority of the public doesn’t think there’s a need for us. But unless you can convince me that racial discrimination is not a problem in the country anymore, then I don’t see any reason to change our goal and mission.”
The overt signs of discrimination—the burning crosses and “Whites Only” signs—have largely disappeared. For many, the concerns now are about the overwhelming social-service needs of the poorest African Americans. This year’s convention is being held in a city that is more than 80 percent black and where 31 percent of the population lives in poverty, nearly half are functionally illiterate and the jobless rate in May was 12.7 percent, compared with 6.6 percent for the state.
While the NAACP lobbies politicians, files lawsuits and negotiates with corporations, some fault it for not feeding hungry people and housing homeless ones.
At the same time, African Americans younger than 30—the backbone of the organization in its heyday—don’t see the visible signs of racism and aren’t as engaged in the struggle, said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP.
“They don’t sit at television at 6 o’clock and watch dogs biting” civil rights demonstrators, Anthony said. “They see Oprah on television. They see Kobe Bryant and Shaquille. They see Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. It makes it more difficult to get them to understand that the struggle ain’t over.
“We as African Americans have failed to transfer the struggle into our children.”
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. The NAACP over the years has held membership drives through its 400 youth and college branches and 1,600 adult branches. A 2004 billboard campaign in 46 states was aimed at 25- to 40-year-olds.
David Williams, 19, a computer engineering student at Oakland Community College, said he understands more about the struggle after last year’s passage by Michigan voters of Proposal 2, a move he said he considers a setback. The ballot initiative barred the use of race, gender or ethnicity in government hiring and contracts and public university admissions. “I’d like to see affirmative action back in Michigan and help for the youth,” said Williams, who is black.
But Williams says he is too busy to join the NAACP while working two part-time jobs and taking classes. “It’s not that it’s not important; it’s just not a main priority right now,” he said. “Right now, getting my education is my way of fighting for my civil rights.”
Melvin (Butch) Hollowell, general counsel of the Detroit NAACP branch and a partner in the Butzel Long law firm in Detroit, said the challenge is to bridge the gap between the old-line rights generation and today’s young people.
“They don’t have the same connection that their parents and grandparents had. Nevertheless, discrimination is alive and kicking in our society,” Hollowell said. “In Michigan, we are one of the tops in the country in hate crimes. When we look at the assault on affirmative action, that’s a national phenomenon. Let’s not kid ourselves, we’ve got a big battle on our hands.”
While waging the battle for social justice, the NAACP has battled internal demons.
In the last three years, as corporate donations and membership languished, it has used about $10 million from its rainy-day fund to cover budget deficits. Last month, the NAACP said it will cut about 40 percent of its national staff and close its seven regional offices to cover the shortfalls.
“The big picture for organizations like ours is that many of them are experiencing financial difficulties,” Bond said. “Ours, for better or for worse, are more public. There has been a falloff of public support. We began to dip into our reserves, which is always a bad, bad practice.”
In March, after just 19 months at the helm as NAACP president and chief executive officer, Bruce S. Gordon stepped down because of disagreements with the 64-member board on the best way to run the organization. Gordon, 61, a former Verizon executive, proposed expanding into social service areas.
Gordon acknowledged in 2006 that the NAACP had far fewer than the 500,000 members it had claimed since 1946 and announced a goal of boosting membership to 1 million by 2009. According to an internal memo published in the news media, the NAACP had just 178,000 members in 1982.
“We’ve always had white members—our founders were black and white,” Bond said. “Our membership is Hispanic, black, white. Though we don’t keep those kinds of records, we like to say that in the NAACP, we think colored people come in all colors. Anybody who shares our values is welcome.”
When Gordon resigned, the NAACP was in the midst of a huge membership drive and fund-raising effort to relocate the organization’s Baltimore headquarters to Washington, D.C. The $20-million move has been delayed because of lackluster fundraising and an inability to find a buyer for the Baltimore property. Gordon also had begun a capital campaign and was pursuing corporate donors, with the goal of raising $100 million by 2009, the NAACP’s centennial. The organization is still searching for his replacement.
Board members say they are progressively fine-tuning the organization. They recently commissioned a national survey of African Americans—members and others—to ask what the goals of the organization should be. They said they hope to roll out some of the findings at the Detroit convention.
“We’re asking the hard questions,” said Brock, the national board vice chair. “This is the only way we can be real and be responsive. You open yourself up to public scrutiny, and then you change.”
Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland professor of government and politics and director of the African American Leadership Institute, said in previous years, the NAACP veered off its mission and attempted to take on poverty and employment programs better suited for the Urban League. Walters said he believes it is on the right path today. It still needs to deal with traditional civil rights issues, even as newer concerns such as immigration surface, he said.
“Especially in the most conservative era of American history, we need the NAACP to continue to be a civil rights organization,” Walters said.
There is little debate that the mission in Detroit, at least, will be to establish policies and strategies to address issues such as economic empowerment, juvenile justice, health care, affirmative action, civic engagement, equality in education and voting rights for minorities and felons.
The question remains what the priorities will be.
“We have to be clear that we can’t do everything,” Hollowell said. “What we do do is world class. And we have to continue that. We can’t be all things to all people.”
WHAT THE NAACP IS DOING NOW
The NAACP has several current initiatives it considers key to helping African Americans achieve social and economic justice.
STOP Campaign: Created this year to protest the negative images of African Americans, particularly women, on television and in music videos and songs. On Monday, the organization will conduct a mock funeral on Hart Plaza to bury the N- word during its Detroit convention. There will be a public march from Cobo Center at 10 a.m. CDT, and the funeral is to begin at 11 a. m. CDT. Future STOP Campaign events are planned.
Voter Empowerment: Designed in 2006 to increase the number of African Americans who register to vote and go to the polls, and to protect the right to vote. ” Arrive with 5” campaign encourages African Americans to take others to vote. In 2004, about 14 million African Americans voted, according to the U. S. Census Bureau.
About 16 million were registered to vote that year, the census estimates.
Building on a Dream: A partnership with the National Association of Home Builders to increase black home ownership.
According to the National Association of Realtors, 42 percent of African Americans owned their homes in 2006, compared with 76 percent of white people. In 2006, the group held a town hall meeting in Los Angeles to promote home ownership.
Other such meetings are planned.
Education: Designed to improve resources, teacher quality and parental involvement. Sponsors back- to- school and stay- in- school programs yearly. About 7 percent of black high school students dropped out before graduating in 2005, compared with almost 3 percent of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The NAACP issued ” The Call to Action” report in 2001, outlining racial disparities in education and asked states to develop a 5- year plan to reduce education- related racial disparities by half. Twenty- three states have submitted plans.
NAACP’S LONG FIGHT FOR JUSTICE
It’s a fact many people don’t know: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was cofounded by a white woman.
Her name was Mary White Ovington, and after college she studied the status of black people in New York. She became active in civil rights and wrote about race and class for radical newspapers and journals.
In January 1908 in a small New York apartment, Ovington met with William Walling, a white socialist author who wrote a book about race relations, and Henry Moscowitz, a Jewish social worker who eventually became prominent in New York politics. They planned to launch a campaign for a national conference on the civil rights of black Americans.
On the centennial of Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, 1909, their call was publicized in the New York Evening Post. It was answered by civil rights pioneers W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida Wells Barnett and about 50 other activists. More than 1,000 people were invited to a May 30 conference. A committee of 40 was formed, and by the end of the first year, there were hundreds of members. Originally called the National Negro Committee, it became the NAACP in May 1910.
HIGHLIGHTS OF NAACP HISTORY:
1913: Publicly protests after President Woodrow Wilson segregates several federal departments.
1917: Fights and wins battle so African Americans can be commissioned as officers in World War I.
1918: Pressures Wilson to make a public statement decrying lynchings.
1935: With NAACP lawyers Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall, wins legal battle to admit a black student to the University of Maryland.
1941: Leads effort to ensure that President Franklin Roosevelt orders a nondiscrimination policy in war-related industries and federal employment during World War II.
1948: Pressures President Harry Truman to sign an executive order banning discrimination by the federal government.
1954: Wins one of the country’s most significant legal battles: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., dismantling the legal basis for racial segregation in schools and other facilities.
1955: Helps spark the modern civil rights movement when NAACP secretary Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala.
1963: Pushes for passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.
1965: Registers more than 80,000 voters in the Old South—amid threats of violence—after the Voting Rights Act is passed.
1985: Leads massive antiapartheid rally in New York City.
1991: Launches a voter registration campaign that yields a 76 percent turnout among black voters to defeat former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke in his bid for Louisiana governor.
1997: Starts a “Stop the Violence, Start the Love” campaign to address increased youth violence.
2000: Organizes a march attended by more than 50,000 to protest the flying of the Confederate flag in Columbia, S.C. The gathering is billed as the largest civil rights demonstration ever in the South.