Till Earth and Heaven Ring

Till Earth and Heaven Ring

The NAACP is back, and it plans on being heard.


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.

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.”

Just a half-decade ago, controversy of another sort plagued the organization. Its executive director, Ben Chavis, and its chairman, William Gibson, were accused of catastrophic mismanagement and lavish spending, compounded by Chavis’s payment of about $300,000 in NAACP funds in an out-of-court settlement of a sexual harassment case. Running up a debt of close to $5 million, the organization went into a tailspin, cutting its staff from 250 in 1992 to just fifty three years later. First foundations, then corporate backers, pulled out, and membership collapsed. The Atlanta Constitution, in a commentary that typified coverage of the NAACP at the time, wrote that it was “frail and listless…like a tottering old geezer about to turn a corner in a bad neighborhood. Does it get bopped in the head and snuffed out of its misery?”

“I was disgusted by the leadership,” says Roger Wilkins, a longtime activist (and nephew of former executive director Roy Wilkins) who was named in 1998 to rebuild The Crisis, the NAACP magazine founded by W.E.B. Du Bois. “I turned away in horror.”

The road back started in late 1994 with the firing of the discredited Chavis. Gibson came under attack by the sixty-four-member board, which began to divide into pro- and anti-Gibson factions, the latter of which received a big boost when Bond was elected to the board. Early the following year, Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s representative in Mississippi who was murdered in 1963 by a white segregationist, won a bitter and contentious fight to oust Gibson as chairman by one vote, 30-29. Trading on the prestige of her name, and using management skills she had honed in the business world as an Arco executive, Evers-Williams began the rebuilding process, meanwhile calling on foundation leaders and corporate backers to pay off the NAACP’s crushing debt. At her inaugural event, African-American columnist Carl Rowan helped raise more than $1.5 million.

Later in 1995, the NAACP hired Mfume as its president and CEO. First elected to Congress in 1986, Mfume, a onetime school dropout from West Baltimore, proved a deft politician, rising to become chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. As president, Mfume brought enormous prestige to the NAACP, along with political savvy and fundraising acumen. Partnering with corporate allies and wealthy black businessmen like Robert Johnson of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and Earl Graves Sr. of Black Enterprise magazine, Mfume managed within one year to erase the NAACP’s debt. By October 1996, the organization was in the black, and it has been thriving financially ever since.

Bond, too, played a key role in the NAACP’s post-1994 renaissance. A founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which organized protests across the Jim Crow South in the 1960s, Bond was elected to the all-white Georgia state legislature–which twice refused to seat him–and led a state counterdelegation to the 1968 Democratic National Convention that successfully challenged the credentials of the all-white official group. Outside observers of the NAACP say that Bond, in particular, is responsible for steering the organization toward a more activist and confrontational politics.

“During the Clinton years, because his enemies were our enemies, we too easily fell into an embrace and a defense of him,” says Bond. That’s a charge echoed by some of the NAACP’s critics on the left, who accuse it of refusing to challenge the conservative drift of the Democratic Party on issues like crime, welfare and social spending. But Bond now seems to be taking the gloves off. In New Orleans he laced into Bush for selecting Cabinet officials “from the Taliban wing of American politics,” whose “devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection.” But Bond added dollops of skepticism about Democrats as well, noting that it “remains to be seen…whether they put the people’s priorities ahead of corporate concerns.”

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.'”

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.

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.”

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.”

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