Can the NAACP Shift Its Agenda?


The venerable National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, like the rest of black leadership these days, is suffering from agenda shock.

After 85 years of successful activism, it could do what might be natural for a group that has outlived its original mission. It could disband. Its members could declare their mission accomplished, pat themselves on the back for past successes, and announce magnanimously that the time has come to give a chance to something or somebody new.

A growing national consensus, even among blacks, agrees that the organization's original goals of desegregation laws, civil rights protections and political empowerment have been largely achieved.

Aside from some anti-discriminatory mopping-up action here and there, black America's new focus has turned to other crises: joblessness, illiteracy, high crime, bad schooling and rampant bloodshed, all of which add up to what Marian Wright Edelman, of the Children's Defense Fund, calls the worst black community crisis since slavery.

Unfortunately it is not a crisis the NAACP was designed to tackle. The NAACP grew out of the Niagara movement at the dawn of the 20th century which agreed with W.E.B. DuBois' emphasis on civil rights and political empowerment, instead of Booker T. Washington's argument for basic education and black "economic nationalism."

Now that those DuBoisian goals have largely been achieved, Washington's view doesn't look so bad. Unfortunately, the only black leader who has been having much success at selling it is Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, who these days likes to lace it with an unhealthy dose of anti-Semitic propaganda.

While Mr. Farrakhan grabs his hour in the limelight that major media traditionally shine on only one black person at a time (A few years ago it was Jesse Jackson. Before that it was Martin Luther King Jr.), the NAACP bears the vital signs of a body on its last legs. Its membership and contributions have dwindled. Its $154 million annual budget has been running at $3 million deficit. Some bills have gone unpaid and some checks have bounced, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Most tragic, a new generation of black youths is coming of age without even knowing what the once-famous initials "NAACP" stand for.

It could seriously consider disbanding, even if only to regroup around other issues and start fresh. But, like the March of Dimes after the conquest of polio, it won't do that.

Instead, under the leadership of the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., 46, who last year replaced the Rev. Benjamin Hooks, 69, it seeks other diseases to fight and new prescriptions to fight them with.

For years, black intellectuals have called for a sequel to the Niagara movement, a Niagara II to reassess where black America needs to go as the 21st century dawns.

That's as good a name as any for the black summit that pulled together last week at the organization's headquarters. Despite prominent absences like Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, it was an interestingly broad collection of black academia, the professions, industry, the clergy and politics.

Major media predictably gave too much attention to one guest, Mr. Farrakhan, but, had Mr. Farrakhan not appeared, major media might not have given any attention to the summit at all. He gave them their news hook. Conflict is always more interesting than cooperation.

Which may explain why Mr. Chavis has been reaching out in recent months to the very militants he shunned last year when he disinvited Mr. Farrakhan from the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King's March on Washington.

Mr. Chavis did the right thing, as far as I was concerned. King never had any intention of inviting Elijah Muhammad to the original march, nor do I think Muhammad would have been all that excited about going. Why invite Muhammad's spiritual heir to the march's commemoration?

Yet Mr. Chavis now calls that disinvitation a mistake and reaches out to Mr. Farrakhan, a move that has caused some members of the organization's board to call for Mr. Chavis' ouster. But William Gibson, the organization's powerful board chairman, stood by Mr. Chavis throughout the summit.

Mr. Chavis' strategy may be riskier than it's worth. It guarantees an enhancement of Mr. Farrakhan's image while making the rest of black leadership look frightened, loosely principled and so bewildered by the current crisis that it must turn to a man who, whatever praiseworthy deeds he may have done elsewhere, still leads a movement among America's historical scapegoats, blacks, to make scapegoats out of the world's historical scapegoats, the Jews.

I still have my doubts that Mr. Farrakhan offers much that black Americans can't find in the heads of their own diverse and more moderate leaders. Mr. Chavis is right to take the NAACP back to the days of the Niagara conference. It is time for black America to reassess its problems and directions.

But the Rev. Jesse Jackson also made an important point during the summit's town meeting when he said that if anything distinguishes black folks from our white oppressors, it is our moral authority.

It was King's moral authority that led to the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and '60s. If the pursuit of "unity" costs black America its remaining moral authority in the '90s, this new generation of leaders will have sold its most precious gift.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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