NAACP rests future on grass roots like Willie Jones


MINNEAPOLIS -- In Huntsville, Texas, Willie Jerry Jones Sr. -- more than Chairwoman Myrlie B. Evers-Williams -- embodies the NAACP.

"My members don't know anything about the national office. All they know is me and my branch," said Mr. Jones, an insurance agent who is the NAACP branch president in the Texas town. "It's just like selling insurance. Customers don't know the home office. All they know is the agent who sells to them."

The same is often true throughout the 2,200 units of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which is holding its 86th annual convention here. Much work of the nation's largest civil rights group is done by volunteers in living rooms, church basements and low-rent offices staffed solely by an answering machine.

Now the NAACP, $3.8 million in debt and its national staff decimated by layoffs, is asking its nationwide network of branches to do even more. Their top priorities are to raise money for the cash-strapped civil rights group and to register and mobilize black voters.

Like the conservative tide in Washington that it proposes to fight, the NAACP is increasing state and local units' responsibility for these efforts.

In her keynote address Sunday night, Mrs. Evers-Williams said the NAACP would "engage in a full-scale crisis mobilization effort to defend our civil rights." She made clear that the bulk of the work must be done by grass-roots volunteers.

While local NAACP leaders say they are ready to take on the challenge, the vitality of their units varies widely. Only a handful have paid staff. Some of the biggest, such as Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore, are bogged down in internal disputes over elections or money.

The Baltimore branch, which laid off its paid executive director this year, did not send President Rodney Orange to the convention for lack of funds.

A branch election has been suspended pending a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling on the right of youth members, led by challenger Kobi Little, to vote.

But Joseph E. Madison, a Washington radio personality, national board member and former NAACP voter education chief, says the branches are up to the task.

"The weight has always been on the local branches," he said. "Somebody's kitchen table can literally be the brain center of the operation in a local community. That has always been the tradition of the NAACP."

"Even in the 1960s the local branches raised money to support student demonstrations in the South. The local branch has always been the backbone of our organization," Mr. Madison said.

Mr. Jones founded his branch in 1961, when even a World War II veteran like himself couldn't drink from the whites-only fountain at the county courthouse.

Thirty-four years later, the 70-year-old former barber is still branch president in the Texas town of 25,000. He figures the volunteer job has cost him $30,000 out of pocket over the years.

Gradually, a new generation of leaders is replacing those, like Mr. Jones, whose service dates to the glory days of the civil rights movement. They are people like the Rev. Bowyer G. Freeman, 35, former president of the Howard County (Md.) NAACP. He was elected chairman yesterday of the NAACP region for Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia.

"The NAACP requires an influx of young people who have benefited from the work of the organization," Mr. Freeman said. "We need to invest so that our children and grandchildren can benefit, too."

Mrs. Evers-Williams wants to update the NAACP's technology as well.

She said Sunday night that her goal is to forge computer links among half of the branches by Jan. 1. But she did not say how the group would pay for such a change.

Meanwhile, James W. Crowell, a 45-year-old Air Force employee who took over the 400-member branch in Biloxi, Miss. about a year ago, has been out recruiting members the old-fashioned way -- by visiting a different black church every Sunday. He said new NAACP leaders have surfaced all along Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

Because the NAACP has such a strong local identity, Mr. Crowell said, negative publicity over the past year about excessive spending and poor oversight at the national level have not hurt his efforts.

"If you're doing things in the community, people will see that," he said.

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