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Till Earth and Heaven Ring | The Nation

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Till Earth and Heaven Ring

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A more intractable problem for the NAACP is its organizational structure. Its far-flung branches are often staid and dominated by an aging gerontocracy, sometimes functioning as little more than social clubs and banquet societies. In rural areas, especially in the South, which has long been and still is the NAACP's area of greatest strength, many branches are weak and rudderless; often, they are led by church ministers who recruit from their own denominations while alienating members of other churches and nonbelievers.

Research support provided by the Elections 2000 Fund of the Nation Institute.

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Robert Dreyfuss
Bob Dreyfuss
Robert Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor, is an investigative journalist specializing in politics and national...

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In many regions several NAACP branches compete within small geographic areas. In Richmond, California, for example, which has fewer than 100,000 people, no less than three NAACP branches compete within ten to fifteen miles of one another, according to Robert Smith, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, making it difficult to marshal resources. (In contrast, the organization's flagship citywide branch in Detroit has more than 50,000 members and last year held a dinner that raised $1.5 million.)

Getting the 2,200 branches to follow directions set by the national headquarters is a daunting task. Except for its national staff and a skeleton staff in seven regional offices, most of its thirty-nine state conferences and its branches are manned by volunteers under no obligation to listen to what Baltimore says. And even the more active branches tend to focus on traditional concerns like police brutality and discrimination in education and housing rather than on the broader issues Bond wants to add to the agenda. Thirty-five years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. began moving in the same direction, highlighting deeper issues of poverty and class instead of battles that pertained to African-Americans alone, and it was a highly controversial shift. "You don't see that at all at the local level," says Smith, author of We Have No Leaders: African Americans in the Post-Civil Rights Era, who is coordinating an outside research project on NAACP branches. "They are all focused on race-specific issues, and you don't see any focus on the kinds of things that concerned King at the time of his death."

Another problem for the NAACP is its lack of young people. Though the organization has paid lip service for years to the notion that it needs to attract Generation X blacks and their younger counterparts, so far it has failed to do so. "I go out and speak to kids on college campuses and in high schools, and I ask them what NAACP stands for," says Mondesire of the Philadelphia branch. "A lot of them think I am talking about the NCAA. That's how pitiful it is." Says Bond, "If you ask me how we are doing among people aged 25 to 35, the answer is: terrible. We're not doing well at all."

Wilkins, publisher of The Crisis (and a Nation editorial board member), says that few young African-Americans grasp the historic sweep of the struggle. "It's really hard, because of the generational leap," he says. "For those who weren't born in segregation, who didn't live through the civil rights movement, in a culture that was so different, it's almost as if we are a generation who emigrated from the old country." Wilkins, like many others, blames the NAACP for having been asleep in the 1960s during the emergence of the Black Power movement, black consciousness, SNCC and the Panthers, when younger black Americans saw the NAACP as fuddy-duddies. To help reach out to a younger audience, Wilkins has hired a young editor, Victoria Valentine, at the 250,000-circulation Crisis. The NAACP is also considering a plan to offer 100,000 free memberships to young people.

Currently the NAACP has about 60,000 young members, mostly organized in its 500 campus branches, according to national youth director Jeff Johnson. Besides partnering with youth organizations on campuses, the association has ventured into a few out-of-character areas such as participating in a hip-hop summit in New York City. But mirroring trends within the broader population, African-American youth are more conservative and less political than their elders, according to Diverging Generations, a study published in June by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Black Generation Xers--or at least a significant portion of them--would appear to be a fairly conservative and potentially Republican-leaning group, says the study, adding that young African-Americans vote less frequently, are more pro-business and are less concerned about race relations than their elders.

"Young blacks do respect the NAACP, but there is a disconnect," says Chic Smith, co-founder and vice president of Urban Think Tank (see www.UrbanThinkTank.org), which focuses on hip-hop culture. "They feel like there is no need for that kind of work anymore. They don't know what segregation is."

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