Till Earth and Heaven Ring | The Nation


Till Earth and Heaven Ring

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It's a hot and humid early evening in mid-June, and half a dozen ceiling fans fail to stir the languid air that has settled into the back room of the historic Freedom Theater in Philadelphia. Yellowish fluorescent lights reflect off the black-painted walls, incongruously decorated all the way around with twinkling, Christmas-style icicle lights. Blue folding chairs arranged in long rows gradually fill up with dozens of members of the city's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who greet each other as old friends, with inquiries about family and acquaintances and loud laughter that echoes off the bare wooden floor.

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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And old they are. Gray hair predominates. "I call it the Ben-Gay set," says J. Whyatt Mondesire, the 51-year-old publisher of the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, who is president of the branch. Janet Pinkney, 87, joined in 1936, making her the chapter's grand dame, and many of the members who've come to the regular monthly meeting are in their 50s and 60s. Scattered here and there are some younger folks, but the vast majority, equally divided between men and women, are much older working-class activists and retired teachers, city employees, warehousemen and drivers.

But their age has sapped neither energy nor passion. When Mondesire gently raps the meeting to order, just after 6:30, the scene shifts quickly away from easy camaraderie. For the next two hours, several dozen voices are raised in an animated, passionate and sometimes angry discussion of politics, civil rights, education and criminal justice. The agenda ranges from the Navy's bombing of the island of Vieques to US reparations to African-Americans for slavery to the police beating of a local black youth. "What's going on here?" asks one member loudly, impatiently noting that the incident occurred nearly a year ago and no investigation has resulted yet. "We're not getting answers!" When the agenda turns to Philadelphia's underfunded and struggling school system, still largely segregated and under assault from advocates of privatization and vouchers, the talk is even more intense. "You have people coming in to buy up pieces of the school system for profit," exclaims Mondesire. "There are people in this country who want to make money off your children!" After each item, plans are made for appropriate action: phone calls, fundraising, the mobilization of 5,000 Philadelphians to descend on Washington and a confrontation with the mayor over how to parcel out contracts for minority-owned firms in the construction of two new sports stadiums in the city.

That vitality, rare indeed in American political culture at the start of the twenty-first century, is the strength of the NAACP. Its Philadelphia branch, with 14,000 members, is one piece of a mosaic that makes up the nation's largest grassroots organization; its 500,000 members, who pay dues of $30 a year, are organized into more than 2,200 branches. It is a potentially vast social and political force, but one that has been allowed to atrophy over the past generation, since the peak years of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and it is only just beginning to recover. As recently as the mid-1990s the Baltimore-based organization was on life support, nearly bankrupt and losing members by the thousands. Since then, under the direction of former Representative Kweisi Mfume, its president, and longtime civil rights activist Julian Bond, its chairman, the organization has largely righted itself. Financially more stable, and with a new team in place, the NAACP has proved that the obituaries written only a few years ago were premature.

With its organizational house in order, the NAACP faces key questions now, at the close of its ninety-second annual convention in New Orleans July 7-12, where it released its first-ever five-year strategic plan. Can the NAACP transform itself from a cautious and fairly conservative organization that does good works but rarely disturbs the status quo into an army deployed on behalf of social and economic justice? Can it define its mission clearly enough in the post-civil rights era to convince young people to take up the cause? And, despite its ties to the Democratic Party establishment, to corporate America, to cautious ministers and to the rising, increasingly Republican-leaning African-American entrepreneurial class, can the NAACP unite those thousands of branches into a force for lasting social change?

Ask Julian Bond. Tall and fit, almost gaunt, with close-cropped, graying hair, the veteran Georgia activist speaks with a trademark quiet over crab cakes and salad at an unassuming eatery in northwest Washington. Of his work with the NAACP, he says, "It's the hardest thing I've ever done." Working side by side with Mfume since 1995, and especially since becoming chairman of the board in 1998, Bond helped engineer the NAACP's turnaround. Now, he says, the organization is ready to launch a more political and militant phase, which, along with the five-year plan, was a central topic at the NAACP convention. "Over the last decade or two, we've adopted a lot of social service activity," he says. "We're not going to abandon that. But our emphasis from now on will be on social justice."

Rather than merely providing scholarships, conducting teaching clinics in how to take college entrance exams, holding sessions on becoming creditworthy and promoting job skills, the NAACP is increasingly going to focus on things that make the powerful feel uncomfortable, says Bond. That means aggressive efforts to increase black voting power, a commitment to universal healthcare, more money for schools and housing, a focus on a living wage and a higher minimum wage, and legislation that deals with the underpinnings of discrimination and unfair treatment, as laid out by Bond and described in NAACP Proposed Strategic Priorities and Goals, 2002-2006. "The big foundations and corporations love social service, but they don't like justice," he says. "Service is warm and huggy and lovable. Justice is in your face and controversial."

That new emphasis, say Bond and other NAACP leaders, won't mean that the organization will give up its basic defense of core civil rights. From big cities to rural communities, for decades the NAACP has been the 911 number people call when there is police brutality or a case of someone refused service in a retail store. When civil unrest erupted in Cincinnati over police shootings of African-Americans or when the showdown over flying the Confederate flag in South Carolina came to a head, Mfume and the NAACP were there, brandishing an arsenal ranging from publicity to lawsuits to boycotts. This past winter, when a Maryland state legislator was forced to use a back entrance at a restaurant in Perry, Florida, the NAACP was on the scene instantly--and, nearly from scratch, built a 100-member branch in the county overnight. "We fight white supremacy," says Bond. "That's what we do."

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