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.