To Forge a Better NAACP

What happened to the NAACP? It’s odd to think that the venerable and historic National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has been reduced to a talking point in the national media cycle this week.

They received national attention in June when the Los Angeles chapter lodged a protest against a Hallmark card with a recorded message that they thought somehow insulted black women. Then in July, the national meeting of the NAACP issued a  statement calling on the conservative Tea Party movement to “repudiate racist factions” in their midst, one year after many in the media and blogosphere had already pointed out evidence of racism during the health care reform protests. Then NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said they were “snookered” by a video posted by right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart that purported to show civil rights veteran and USDA official Shirley Sherrod “revealing her past racism.” Sherrod was really telling a story about her own transformation, from a person who wanted to aid poor black farmers, to a person who wanted to assist poor farmers no matter their race. The NAACP of today should be celebrating the work of people like Sherrod, not misunderstanding who she is.

Students frequently ask me questions about today’s NAACP. They ask if I think the NAACP is still necessary in today’s “post-civil rights” world. They ask what work the NAACP should be doing now. Many students dismiss the NAACP as old and ineffectual, out of touch with their generation. These incidents seem to reinforce this notion that the NAACP is spinning its wheels, late to point out injustice, or failing to address real crises while targeting the wrong people or imagined problems.

Part of the problem is that in contemporary conversation it seems like the NAACP has been painted into a racialized corner as an all-black organization that is somehow “reverse racist,” selfish, and self-interested.  Many accuse the NAACP of lacking new ideas and new energy that can address what social justice should be in the 21st century. It might be a good time for the NAACP to remember its own history.

The NAACP grew out of the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, the foremost African American scholar and activist, who started his own civil rights organization called the Niagara Movement. Du Bois created an all-black organization determined to ensure “every single right that belongs to a freeborn American—political, civil, and social.” Although Niagara struggled to survive, a white ally, Oswald Garrison Villard, owner of the New York Evening Post and the Nation and grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, tapped into the dissent of Du Bois’ Niagara Movement, and sent out “The Call” for activists both black and white to found an organization that could effectively contest the rise of lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement.

So from the very beginning, the NAACP was an interracial coalition of the very best activists and scholars addressing the crises that faced black Americans. It was this interracialism that got the NAACP off the ground, helping to prove their call for justice was a universal one, reviving the spirit present in the abolitionist movement of a prior generation. It was precisely this coalition that allowed the organization to weather its earliest storms. They could benefit from this same kind of coalition building today, as they attempt to articulate the challenges facing Americans in the age of Obama.

In the forty years after its founding, the NAACP has attracted powerful advocates to its ranks. Historian Patricia Sullivan’s Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement reminds us that the best and the brightest Americans joined the Association’s ranks, sacrificing their time and risking their lives to work on behalf of the organization. Early stalwarts like Joel Spingarn, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Ella Baker, and Charles Hamilton Houston, and lesser know figures like May Childs Nerney and Kathryn Magnolia Johnson, traveled from place to place, chapter to chapter, building networks, investigating injustices, and supporting local struggles. These activists were grounded in the notion that they had a duty to use their education, opportunity, and talent on behalf of others. While they often bumped heads, disagreeing on tactics and approaches, their efforts were focused on building a responsive and powerful organization. Perhaps today’s NAACP should attempt to do the same, drawing on talents of a broad group of young activists and scholars who might help create a vision for a new century.

Throughout the group’s history, the real strength of the NAACP’s organizational base has come from the work of local chapters, everyday people who used the NAACP as a vehicle for change in their own communities. The NAACP’s greatest success, the case of Brown v. Board, grew out of communities of struggle–places like rural Summerton, South Carolina, where black parents united to improve conditions for their children.

Local chapters of the NAACP are still involved in meaningful struggles throughout the country. For example, the North Carolina NAACP has been involved in contesting the erosion of integration in Wake County Schools. Wake County’s large and ever-growing school district had been heralded by educators around the nation for achieving success in blending poor and working class children of all races into classrooms throughout the district through a busing and magnet school system based on economic diversity. A newly elected, majority white school board has pushed for “neighborhood schools” that would in fact be much more economically and racially homogeneous. The local NAACP co-sponsored an interracial, inter-generational march this week to contest these new policies. In order to protect the gains of the past fifty years of struggle, school integration in the 21st century must be part of the “national conversation.”

NAACP President Ben Jealous featured William Barber, the head of the North Carolina NAACP, at the national convention last week. Perhaps Jealous could do more. Perhaps he could come to North Carolina, meet the young students and activists of all backgrounds, and seek to recruit them and young people like them across the country into the Association. Perhaps this generation should be central, forming the leadership of a new movement that draws on the lessons the NAACP’s own history.

Blair L. M. Kelley is associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson.

14 Comments

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  2. “Perhaps this generation should be central, forming the leadership of a new movement that draws on the lessons the NAACP’s own history.”

    I couldn’t agree more Professor. The NAACP needs to reform itself with the current generation. As an octogenarian I remember the great work of the NAACP. For quite some time now I’ve been concerned that the NAACP would become a dimly remembered anachronism. Thank you for this post!

  3. I appreciate your piece, but i wonder if you checked whether the NAACP was actually doing any of the things you suggest before you wrote thus.

    1) They are leading an effort to build a multi-racial movement. Their CEO Ben Jealous speaks about a people of color and multiracial movement much more than any previous NAACP leader. They are also leading the planning of a multi-racial march–http://www.seattlemedium.com/news/Article/Article.asp?sID=3&NewsID=104353 . I think now is the time to laud, and even join that kind of effort.

    2) SInce Ben was hired he’s hired many of the best and brightest activists, many of them Gen Xers and Yers, men and women, in the country. That includes folks like Monique Morris, Maxim Thorne, Roger Vann, Steve Hawkins, Leila McDowell, and many others. I’m in this field, and i know that they’ve brought on some of the best folks to work on these important issues.

    3) the NAACP is working on school integration– http://www.naacp.org/programs/entry/education-programs/

    4) The NAACP is now out of debt, building new programs like a climate justice program (cutting edge, an issue that has huge potential for youth engagement), they are doing social media work…) and these significant steps should be lauded as part of any review of where the NAACP is.

    i don’t work for, or in my current work, even with the national NAACP, but i know these things off the top of my head. I think to really give constructive criticism to the NAACP will take a focused review of their work, their barriers, and the reality of an african-american institution working against institutionalized racism given the white populations reaction to domestic demographic and economic changes.

  4. I’d consider joining NAACP if they’d have me. Maybe part of the next step is bridging divides. NAACP has a site (a home base, chez soi) for African-Americans to start from. The next step is welcoming hospitably the Other and creating a political and social space for that to happen.

  5. The discussion here about the NAACP is not much different than the discussion happening within the feminism and choice movements. Younger people, who were raised with social and economic privileges their moms and grandmoms didn’t have, question the establishment orgs and if fighting the good fight make sense for them. It’s sad to see this generation taking so much granted.

    That said, I think articles, like this, are helpful. The NAACP needs a makeover. It needs to change. They need to take advantage of their stature to bring new people and ideas into the fold. I commend your work, but the article does not tell the whole story. NAACP LDF actively works on an array of policy issues. They actively are supporting people who need assistance on the ground. It would have been nice if that information was included, and if young people understood that.

    Another point worth noting is that people can change an organization from within. Years ago, I was registering ppl to vote to remember people questioning why Blacks should be Democrats or the point of voting. Fast forward to see that Democratic party provided Obama a platform to speak at the Dem convention and supported his rise to become the first Black president. It’s not magic. It takes hard work, and there is something to be said about CREATING change. There’s also something to be said for joining worthy cause whether it’s exactly your style or not.

    Thanks for the article. Keep up the good work.

  6. Great article. I think that while the critiques from Ludovic and Sonya above are valid, I dont think your purpose was to minimize what the organization actually already does. I think what you’re speaking to (and forgive my presumption) is less a crisis of purpose and more a crisis of focus and communication.

    Professor Kelley isn’t suggesting that the NAACP isn’t doing things of value within the community. The issue is in the difference between what impact they may have on a chapter by chapter local level and the image they project as a national organization and how they’re managing nationally. It’s also an issue of how they engage those they have to convince to join their ranks if the organization is to survive.

    As a Gen Xer, I believe Sonya is right that this last item is a struggle across many fronts. Many movements and organizations need to engage the Gen X and Gen Y leaders to bring fresh blood in without losing the connection to their history. I dont think starting from the assumption that younger people take their freedoms for granted is a constructive way to begin that engagement. I think Professor Kelley’s point is that a different approach and image is necessary for organizations to attract and retain the talented young leaders in our communities. In a Twitter age, when information is readily shared and discussed so easily, when more information is available in hours than was previously available in weeks, it does not help the NAACP’s image to make a show of denouncing racism in HCR protests a year later. Especially since, given what you’ve said, they’d probably already done so in a timely manner on the local level. It doesn’t help the NAACP that they don’t effectively utilize social networking or seem to understand its impact.

    Any organization is only as effective as they can convey themselves to be to others. While technology brings us closer together in some ways, it can only do so if you use it effectively. A loose coalition of chapters interacting mostly at national conferences with a central leadership still using old communication approaches will not survive, period – regardless of the strength of the ideals, regardless of the effectiveness of individual chapters. Ben Jealous et al need to be marketers – speak immediately and in an informed manner on things that matter to the organization’s true aims (understanding at rushing to appease those who refuse to partner with you has never been an aim of the organization). At the same time, they need to keep a constant line of communication instead of being seen to jump on the bandwagon for the issue of the moment. They need to be social organizers AND social networkers, letting us know in real time what they’re doing on a local and national level. Engage in the media that allow access to so many young people, who, despite what seems to be popular wisdom within the org, are working very hard to maintain and progress the freedoms they have brought to us thus far. Mostly they need to embrace change to embrace a generation who know nothing but that and who, when older organizations have not seemed to align with their approach, have created their own. Once that happens, I think we’ll see a clear path for how we can all forge ahead.

  7. Excellent piece, Professor! I think that gives much needed context and history of the Association as well as some of our pitfalls. I do however, believe that if we would like to seek change of the NAACP and like organizations, we must grab the strings…they will not be handed over to us like a baton in a relay.

    Additionally, I would like to clarify that the NAACP LDF and the NAACP are no longer joint organizations. They collaborate, but are separate though the LDF retained the name.

    Hopefully, more in our generation will heed the call to revolutionize the NAACP from the ground up.

  8. I believe this article is based on a faulty premise. The NAACP is a direct reflection of the African-Americans community at large So, to criticize them, is to criticize the community as a whole. A black man gets 50 million white votes and the community seemed to think that was the time for this black man to put forth programs, “targeted” specifically towards African Americans. The NAACP is not out of step with this mindset. As a matter of fact, their resolution, asking the Tea Party to condemn its racist elements was rather tame and belated. And, I might add, more than most in the African-American community did. Any failure of the NAACP at diversity is not about the organization, but about the individuals within the organization. By the way, if the GenXers are so hot, then why have they had ZERO impact on any of the elections since 2008?

    As an African-American, I believe the following compromises would go a long way towards facilitating the reconciliation we need in this country:

    Celebrate whites who’ve contributed to the, “advancement of colored people” during Black History Month. LBJ would be a great person to start with.

    Support expanding Affirmative Action programs to include whites on lower end of socio-economic scale.

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