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.