NAACP'S future holds conflict between old, new attitudes

In the NAACP's heyday, church ladies used to sign up members every Sunday, and families gave newborns lifetime memberships as baptism gifts.

Today the 95-year-old civil rights group with a history of defending the rights of minorities, grapples to convince young people that it's not their grandmother's organization, while proving to conservatives that civil rights concerns persist half a century after Jim Crow.

Last week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's president, Kweisi Mfume, abruptly resigned after nearly nine years, leaving many to question the group's future.

"This is a very critical juncture," said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, one of the nation's largest with 5,000 members. "Losing Mfume at the beginning of Bush 2 [President Bush's second term] is devastating. Bush is about to wage an all-out assault on affirmative action, Roe v. Wade, and he could bring more than three new members on the Supreme Court. Who is going to protect us from that?"

President Bush - upset about what he believes to be unfair criticism - has declined to meet with NAACP leadership, which has a history of successfully advocating its agenda with presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

And the Internal Revenue Service could take away the group's tax-exempt status, because of complaints that Chairman Julian Bond stepped into partisan politics, with a speech made this summer bashing the Bush administration.

Mondesire praised Mfume's leadership, but was critical of the Baltimore-based national office, saying its tactics are stuck in the past. The group's national leaders rely on dialogue with politicians rather than grassroots organizing, he said.

"Their vision is still too narrow," he said. "It's tied to the old paradigm of the civil rights struggle. But civil rights evolves, like all life.

"We are now in the final stages of the civil rights struggle, which is economic independence," he said. "That's what Martin Luther King fought for near the end of his life. That's where we need to be."

That may be so, but it's hard to generate excitement to fight social problems, particularly among youths, who believe the battles have been won.

"In general, a lot of the issues are more subtle," said Tiffany Williams, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has belonged to the NAACP since she was a child. "There's no Brown v. Board of Education, so sometimes people think that it's not a problem. They won't acknowledge it's a problem until something big happens. And when it happens, the NAACP will be here."

Brown v. Board of Education, which provided the legal fodder to end segregation, is history, but the NAACP must continue to defend civil rights, said Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which released a report critical of Bush's civil rights record.

Although the number of civil rights complaints forwarded to the U.S. Justice Department has remained steady in recent years - about 12,000 annually - federal enforcement of civil rights laws decreased sharply, according to a study released last month from the Transitional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research group at Syracuse University.

The number of criminal prosecutions dropped from 159 in fiscal year 1999 to 84 last year, it found.

"Those people who say there are no civil rights problems, I guess they don't see, they don't read or something - I don't know what to do with those people," Berry said. "But for the other people, who may not see how this organization is going to solve what you know is a problem, the NAACP needs to come up with plans that are more visible.

"They've got the members, but do they have the moxie?"

Some scholars think the situation is so dire that the NAACP must shift into crisis mode.

"I would set a year of decisive action, beginning with Martin Luther King's birthday," said Derrick A. Bell Jr., who was recruited to work at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund by Thurgood Marshall, and is now a professor at New York University Law School. "The main focus would be on poverty and getting people back into the work force through training and insistence that corporations and business do better."

Others think the best way to address social problems such as jobs, health care and education is to rally the NAACP's 500,000 members.

"The health of the organization is defined by the strength of its grass roots," said Robert C. Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, and author of the Encyclopedia of African-American Politics.

"The association should find a way to establish best practices. Look at what the chapters are doing around the country, then go share that with the others," he said.

The Philadelphia NAACP chapter, for example, is known for its activism and fund raising, Smith said. It led a march of nearly 10,000 people in April to draw attention to Philadelphia's more than two dozen child killings. It also operates an after-school tutoring program for children, and it has a nonprofit foundation that rehabilitates housing, Mondesire said.

Yet Mondesire, who has been at odds with national leadership at times, blamed the national headquarters for discouraging cooperation.

"They don't want us to threaten Baltimore's hegemony, their political power," he said.

With unity among chapters, the organization could form the coalitions needed to confront the Bush administration, said some civil rights experts.

"They need to take the initiative to reach across the aisle to the Republicans and conservatives, to opponents and enemies," said Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree. "They need to spend a lot of time creatively finding the next dozen or so Barak Obamas - young, gifted, independent leadership - for the civil rights agenda."

Bush has said he refused to meet with the NAACP because its leaders have unleashed unfair critiques of his administration.

When Bush declined to speak at the NAACP's national convention this summer, Bond gave a speech that criticized the president on a wide variety of issues, including civil rights and the war in Iraq. Some observers said the IRS investigation into the group's tax-exempt status was spurred by its leftward shift.

"I don't know whether it crossed the legal line, but compared to other periods in its history, I think it has come closer to the Democratic Party," Smith said.

Others believe that only individual responsibility can change the problems such as unemployment and education.

"Today there's no constitutional protections not enjoyed by blacks," said Walter E. Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University. "That's not to say that every vestige of discrimination has been eliminated. It is to say that the devastating problems facing a large proportion of the black community are not civil rights problems, and the solutions won't be found in the political arena."

Sun staff writer Jason Song contributed to this article.

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