CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was Youth Night at the NAACP convention, and the hall was rocking to the sounds of gospel music. Thousands were on their feet, raising their hands to the heavens and praising the Lord.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume stood on the dais, clapping in time to the rhythm, smiling broadly. After 17 years in public office, adhering in his official duties to separation of church and state, the former Maryland congressman was clearly back in church.
"We came to have Youth Night, and instead we have church. And that's all right!" Mfume told the crowd, which erupted in cheers and applause.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, known over its 87-year history for lobbying and litigating to win equal rights for African-Americans, is today a secular organization with a heavy religious overlay.
Mfume's two immediate predecessors, the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks (1977-1993) and the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. (1993-1994) were preachers. Its board of directors includes the head of the National Baptist Convention, two bishops of black denominations and at least four ministers (and one rabbi).
Its chairwoman, Myrlie Evers-Williams, describes her attempt to bring the NAACP back from the brink of financial insolvency and political irrelevancy in religious terms.
"I have been able to turn my life over and say, 'God, your will be done. Here I am; send me,' " she says.
Invocations and benedictions at NAACP events are not mere formalities. They often are mini-events in themselves as preachers reach for heights of eloquence and inspiration. The annual convention includes a Saturday night gospel extravaganza, a Sunday morning memorial service and late-night revivals.
And no convention would be complete without the NAACP's official organist and unofficial minister of cheer, the Rev. J. R. Williams, the 65-year-old pastor of Mount Moriah AME Church in Annapolis. In his trademark white cowboy hat, he has provided musical accompaniment and spiritual uplift since 1973.
When President Clinton addressed the convention Wednesday, Williams led a spirited group-sing of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Even Mfume's presentation of the NAACP's new Internet Web site was decorated with Williams' musical embroidery.
"The black experience is housed in the black church," Williams said. "The church was the only free shelter where blacks could meet to develop a sense of community and reach toward wholeness and freedom."
Few NAACP speakers, including Mfume, pass up the chance to praise God and cite scripture.
"He's not a preacher, but he's almost preaching the way he talks," Williams said approvingly of the new president and chief executive officer.
The Rev. Julius C. Hope, the NAACP's religious affairs director, said most NAACP memberships "come out of somebody's church." When the NAACP was on the financial ropes, black churches took up special collections and contributed $400,000, he said.
"The biggest thing we own, operate and control in this country is still the black church," Hope said. "We let the world know we are not ashamed of our roots. We know the Lord has brought us this far."
There appears to be no generation gap in NAACP attitudes about religion. When God is praised at youth events, the audience reacts as enthusiastically as their gray-haired elders.
Mfume recently named a 25-year-old preacher, the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, assistant pastor at Baltimore's Bethel AME Church, to head the youth and college division.
"We've come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord. God is still good, all the time," Bryant said in a sermon-like Youth Night speech that brought the convention to its feet.
Bryant used an Old Testament story -- God's sending Samuel to Bethlehem to find David to lead the Israelites -- as his text in urging the NAACP to reach out to young and dispossessed blacks, and to welcome a generational "changing of the guard."
"Bethlehem was the projects, the Section 8 housing," Bryant said. "NAACP, before we can go to the next level, we've got to go and get those who we forgot."
Despite frequent reminders that the NAACP and the black church are inextricably linked, it was not always so, says David Levering Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Rutgers University historian.
Lewis, the biographer of W. E. B. Du Bois, a black intellectual and agnostic who helped found the NAACP and edited its magazine, the Crisis, said the "church was rather absent" in the early days of the civil rights group.
"The leadership of the NAACP until recent times was resolutely secular," Lewis said. "In the Crisis, under Du Bois, the church got walloped regularly for its retarded social behavior and the level of preparation of much of the ministry."
The NAACP often saw the black church as "really retrograde," and church people, in turn, often viewed the NAACP -- dubbed the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People -- as hopelessly elitist, Lewis said.
The historian said the NAACP and the black church did not really converge until well into the 1960s, when many young civil rights activists formed more radical organizations, and the NAACP was left with "an aging, conservative, more affluent membership."
Lewis believes the black church will continue to exert a conservative influence over the NAACP.
However, Julian Bond, an NAACP board member, called the religious influence "generally positive."
Bond said that "ministerial eloquence and flamboyance" sometimes substitute for substance at NAACP gatherings.
But he said, "The upside is that it ties this organization into this amazing network of religious people in all these denominations who believe already in a liberation theology.
L "They don't have to be converted. They come to us that way."
Pub Date: 7/14/96