As more than 8,000 members of the nation’s most venerable civil rights organization gather in Houston this weekend for a convention featuring appearances by Vice President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the unofficial topic outside the hall may be whether time has passed the NAACP by.
During the long years when black children were forced to attend separate, vastly inferior schools and Southern states were relying on poll taxes, voters’ tests and raw intimidation to keep black citizens from the ballot box, the focus for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was both urgent and crystal clear. The association was at the forefront in the arduous battle to end racial segregation in schools and other public places as well as secure the right to vote for black Americans.
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the tangible results of a monumental decades-long struggle.
Today, 103 years after the association’s founding, the issues are more nuanced, even though racial inequity and its consequences remain a stubborn fact of American life.
“The NAACP was the flagship of the civil rights movement, but in recent years — recent decades, to be honest — it seemed to lose its way,” Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, argued recently. “The group continued to do good work, but to the extent that it sought to identify some sort of umbrella ‘black agenda,’ it failed as black America became increasingly diverse.”
Cary Wintz, a Texas Southern University historian, makes a related observation: “Once you start having African-Americans with significant political power, particularly in cities, the NAACP has achieved, at least in a political sense, what it fought for through much of the 20th century. So, what are the political goals of the NAACP today? What is its role in politics?”
Key issue: voting rights
Benjamin Todd Jealous, 39, the NAACP’s president and a fifth-generation member, acknowledges that times have changed since his mother, a member of the NAACP’s Youth and College Division, helped desegregate a Baltimore high school in 1954. He disputes the notion that the association he has led since 2008 is less relevant than it was 50 years ago.
“We were fighting Jim Crow segregation, and so our tactics and our activities, what we asked of our volunteers, was very much focused on doing what was necessary to win major court battles and then enforce them,” he said. “Today we are fighting mass poverty and mass incarceration and mass under-education, and in each case the fix is more likely to be passing legislation than winning litigation.”
The multiple battlegrounds today, the youngest president in NAACP history said, include support for comprehensive health care, combatting an HIV/AIDS epidemic that disproportionately affects black people, insisting on effective, well-funded public schools and changing the perception that the prison industrial complex is a crime-fighting panacea.
One of the associations’ signature issues, voting rights, also has reappeared, Jealous noted.
“In the past legislative session, more states have passed more laws pushing more voters out of the ballot box than in any legislative session since the rise of Jim Crow,” he said. “A wave like that is intentional. It’s created by hundreds of state legislators across the country acting in unison to suppress the vote.”
Last line of defense
The NAACP remains as strong as its collection of city, state and college chapters, said Todd Steven Burroughs, a lecturer at Morgan State University in Baltimore and co-author of “Civil Rights: Yesterday and Today.”
“Historically, the NAACP is the first and the last line of defense for many African-Americans, especially those in the South. In many cases, the NAACP was like the political wing of the black church in the South,” he said. “It has always embraced all races and all people who are fighting for civil rights. I wasn’t surprised to see the NAACP come out for gay rights because that is about equal protection under the law.”
Burroughs, who worked on the organization’s communications staff for a year in the 1990s, said he finds great hypocrisy in the “relevance” question when other long-standing member groups do not face inquiries about their current usefulness.
“The power of the NAACP is, ironically, what it gets criticized for — being around 100 years. ... People need to remember that the rights that many Americans enjoy now come from the fights waged by the NAACP,” he said. “The relevance of the NAACP is that it continues to make people uncomfortable with the parts of American history people are trying to avoid.”
However effective the modern NAACP is in its crusade against social and political injustice, visits by Biden and other national political figures are still de rigueur, largely because of the organization’s political sophistication, Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said.
“What the NAACP has is an extraordinary historical brand,” Brinkley said. “Its power is in its label. It’s no longer the king-daddy; there are dozens of other groups fighting for social and racial equality, but it still carries with it an aura.”