Till Earth and Heaven Ring
Propelling the NAACP, in part, is the tainted outcome of the 2000 election, especially in Florida. Anger over that debacle, which is deeply rooted in the black community--members of the Congressional Black Caucus even walked out of the joint Congressional session that certified Bush's victory--was strongly felt by the NAACP, which conducted statewide hearings into voting abuses in Florida, filed a lawsuit to force changes and successfully pushed for legislation in Tallahassee that goes a long way toward fixing the problems that marred last year's vote. Now, a top priority for the organization is a federal law mandating sweeping changes in voting procedures, on which the NAACP plans to hold both hostile Republicans and weak-kneed Democrats accountable. "We are determined to make sure that what happened in Florida never happens again," says Bond.
One problem, though not the most serious, that Bond faces in his efforts to make the NAACP more aggressive is the organization's closeness to corporate supporters and wealthy African-Americans who might not look kindly on the NAACP's new direction. That's true not only at the national level but also in many of the large branches, where the local NAACP dinners attract political elites and thousands of people from the business community. Since the mid-1990s the NAACP has won the backing of scores of multinational corporations, high-tech firms and retailers, who often weigh in with big bucks: $500,000 from Bell Atlantic, $1 million from the SBC Foundation, large grants from NationsBank and AT&T to help run service programs; and money from companies like GTE, Texaco, Ford, GM, BMW, Wal-Mart, McDonald's and 7-Eleven, whose glossy ads, along with many others, appeared in just a single recent issue of the NAACP's magazine.
"How much money can you take from corporations and still hold them accountable?" asks Ronald Walters, an Afro-American studies professor at the University of Maryland, who criticizes the organization for not having paid more attention in the past to issues of inner-city poverty, urban development and the effects of problems like drugs, imprisonment and AIDS on poor African-American communities. "It leads me to wonder how far the NAACP can go in that direction and still be politically effective."
At least some of that money is explicitly interested in reducing the NAACP's commitment to social welfare. Robert Johnson, the media tycoon and would-be airline mogul, was an early backer of the NAACP's rebirth, donating $100,000 in 1996. Since then, however, Johnson has organized black businessmen in support of President Bush's plan to repeal the estate tax and joined the White House commission to develop plans to privatize Social Security. "Most civil rights organizations support government intervention," Johnson says. "They want government money to subsidize this and subsidize that. They have the attitude that money ought to go to the government so it can be transferred to us."
On specific issues, however, it's hard to find an example of how the NAACP has catered to its financial supporters. The organization strongly mobilized against Bush's tax cut plan, including the repeal of the estate tax, even though Johnson and Graves, who is on the organization's Special Contribution Fund, supported it. On Social Security, too, the NAACP has consistently opposed even partial privatization. "I don't know of an instance where funding has influenced a decision we've made," Bond says.
In the Philadelphia branch, whose annual dinner attracts fifty to sixty local corporations that pony up $2,000 each to attend--providing nearly half of the branch's $250,000 yearly budget--Mondesire, the local president, also says that the NAACP ignores funders when picking its targets. In the last year or two, the Philadelphia NAACP launched citywide campaigns for a living wage of $11 an hour for workers with city contractors and for a law prohibiting predatory mortgage lending by banks--which, Mondesire says, often target elderly African-American homeowners. "A lot of lobbyists came in here on that one, from places like Citibank and SmithBarney, a lot of bank people who'd been supporting us, saying, 'Why are you doing that?'" Mondesire recalls. "And I told them, 'We may take money from you, but it doesn't mean we are going to sell out to you.'"