NAACP poised to lead once again

Recently, and for no apparent reason, a cousin of mind wrote this paean to his father: “He's always been the way he is. He keeps his word, has no problem saying no, he never commits to something he can't or won't be able to do. … When I was younger, I didn't appreciate that quality, but I do now. … Time has shown me how rare his character qualities are, and I will never again take them, or him, for granted.”

As I read that, I immediately thought about the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose steadfastness, like my relative’s, has largely been taken for granted. Despite scorn sometimes heaped on it by movements that have come and gone, the NAACP, which is headquartered in Baltimore, is remarkably still on the case. In fact, it is needed today as it was when lynching, poor schools, economic inequality and access to the ballot box first topped its national agenda more than a century ago.

Perhaps a certain longevity brings with it a greater appreciation of what’s required to organize volunteers throughout the country and to motivate them to continue giving their all to what must at times seem like Sisyphean causes. If you spend any time with the newest crop of leaders, you can find yourself believing. Of course, that says as much about Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO since last fall, and the team he has assembled as it does about how dire the times can appear if you are not a Trumpian acolyte.

When two black men are arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia for doing nothing that others don’t do there — sit around — and when a black teenager seeking directions is shot at after he knocks on the door of a white man in Michigan, that says as much about race and place as does Beyonce headlining a California festival or Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer Prize for his music.

Reflecting on changes in American society since 1968, the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute recently reported: “With respect to homeownership, unemployment and incarceration, America has failed to deliver any progress for African-Americans over the last five decades.” That’s a call not to give up but to press ahead with greater zeal and with as many hands on board from as many directions possible.

Others have had their moments in the sun — the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party — and some still carry on admirable work, like the National Urban League, the National Action Network and the Black Lives Matter movement. However, nothing matches the record, the reach and the potential of the NAACP. After some years of uncertainty, it currently claims a stable membership of some 500,000 in more than 2,000 chapters. In February, a new director of its youth division was hired with a mandate to cultivate the ideas and harness the energy of members of its 700 youth councils and student chapters. Some 900 NAACP youth took part in the March for Our Lives antiviolence rally in Washington last month, then went back to their hometowns to carry on the fight. “You turn them loose, you support them, you push them,” Mr. Johnson says.

A healthier NAACP is a sign of an increasingly engaged membership at the ground troops level — a requirement for permanently addressing the systemic roadblocks to black success in the U.S. and for a focus that goes beyond the fight for control of Congress in 2018. For sure, progressive coalitions are salivating at the possibility of Democrats winning control of at least the House of Representatives in this fall’s midterm elections, and the NAACP is rallying its local chapters to produce turnouts the size of presidential election-years. But it wants voters to care as much about state and local races as they do national politics. “Other folks have millions of dollars. We have millions of voters,” Mr. Johnson told a gathering of journalists in Washington last week as he explained an NAACP goal of winning statehouses. “We need to turn out to change the complexion of the states and the reality of the public policy landscape.”

The NAACP is not yet back to being the quintessential organization that it was in the heyday of Thurgood Marshall and Lillie Carroll Jackson. But it feels on the way to being what’s needed in our time.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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