Till Earth and Heaven Ring
Perhaps the best example of the new spirit at the NAACP is how it approached the 2000 election. To get things moving, the organization short-circuited its cumbersome bureaucracy and did an end run around legal restrictions that governed how political it could be by setting up the NAACP National Voter Fund. Funded largely by a handful of anonymous donors and governed by a five-member board that included Bond and Mfume, it coupled sophisticated geographic targeting with hard-hitting, side-by-side comparisons of candidates and razor-sharp ads on issues like hate crimes, schools and racial profiling.
With $12 million to spend, and drawing on 10,000 street volunteers, the fund targeted seventeen states in the presidential and Senate elections and eighty Congressional districts, forty of which were largely African-American and forty more that were up-for-grabs marginal districts in which the group had a stake. Turning the NAACP's conventional wisdom on its head, instead of concentrating on voter registration, long a staple of the organization, the fund focused on voter turnout. "We particularly focused on infrequent voters," says Heather Booth, its executive director. "We built up a voter file of more than 3.8 million African-American voters, and we concentrated on getting them to the polls." By Election Day, the fund had made more than 5.2 million phone calls, mailed 6.7 million letters, spent $3 million to run edgy commercials in print and on radio and television, placed spokespeople on black talk shows and mobilized 5,000 Election Day workers.
"It was a ground war," says David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who strongly endorses the idea that get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaigns ought to take precedence over registration. "Between 1992 and 1996, 7 million additional Americans were registered to vote, but there were 5 million fewer voters," he says. "Registration isn't going to win elections. The issue was getting people to the polls." In the end, 10.5 million blacks voted in 2000, 1 million more than in 1996, with increases particularly notable in Florida, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas--and more than 90 percent of those votes went to Gore.
Florida, where the NAACP voter fund maintained offices in three cities and boasted 50,000 members (or 10 percent of its national membership) in sixty-seven branches, was the scene of a massive GOTV effort by the organization. Aiding the mobilization there was the fact that over the year before the election, the NAACP worked nonstop against two separate anti-affirmative action schemes, one designed by Ward Connerly and the other being Florida Governor Jeb Bush's One Florida plan. "That's what built the strong feeling that people needed to get to the polls," says Leon Russell, a former NAACP state conference president in Florida. In part, the vastly increased turnout swamped poorly funded and badly staffed polling places, overwhelming creaky voting machines in many precincts and leading to mass confusion and disfranchisement, punctuated with outright abuses and intimidation, Southern style. Still, turnout grew strikingly, with black voters rising from 10 percent to 15 percent of the overall electorate. "If it were not for the black vote in Florida," says Bositis, "the legitimacy of Bush's election would not have been called into question."
The success of the National Voter Fund has helped build momentum for the NAACP's transformation, the outlines of which are contained in its new strategic plan. The plan calls for registering several million new black voters, educating and training them, monitoring elections and election officials, holding state and local governments accountable, and encouraging more minoritie candidates to run for office. It also calls for doubling the organization's membership by 2006 to 1 million, conducting extensive regional, state and local advocacy training programs, expanding the NAACP's legal team and beefing up the Washington office, which focuses its efforts on Congress. Most important, the plan provides a detailed outline of key issues for the NAACP over the next five years, from civil rights enforcement and criminal justice to economic empowerment, education and healthcare. On healthcare, for instance, the plan envisions a campaign for universal health insurance, beginning with children, and then families with children, until all Americans are guaranteed access to care, along with support for prescription drug benefits and home healthcare for the elderly.
It's an ambitious plan, and one that could help rebuild the organization as a catalyst for social change. Still, for some, the NAACP's long history of moderation won't be easily overcome. "Black people would be willing to risk even a period of Republican rule in support of a leadership that is more militant and more aggressive," says San Francisco's Robert Smith. "I think black people have enough protest ethos left to risk a lot to challenge the powers that be. But the leadership of black America is too timid and too accommodationist." Skeptical even of the NAACP's current leadership, Smith says, "I don't think these guys are gonna do it."
Yet they're trying. Roger Wilkins puts it best. "It's not a radical organization," he says. "But I do think the job of the NAACP is to take on some of these economic justice issues. The NAACP needs to build a new, coherent vision to replace the vision that was present when we were fighting segregation."
Back in Philadelphia, the meeting at the Freedom Theater is winding up. Otis Bullock, 22, wearing an Allen Iverson basketball jersey, mingles with older folks. A law student at Temple University, Bullock grew up in tough West Philly, and unlike many of the middle-class African-American law students he hangs out with, he sees the NAACP as a fighting organization. "The struggle is my passion," he says. "I felt I had to come."