WASHINGTON -- "This is not your father's NAACP."
Thus said Julian Bond last weekend as he presided over his first board meeting since he was elected national chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
No, I hope it is not our fathers' NAACP. After all, these are not our fathers' times.
For one thing, our fathers and mothers knew about the NAACP and viewed it as a far more essential and history-making group than today's youths appear to see it.
In the African-American communities I knew as a kid in the 1950s and '60s, the NAACP was a healthy, ambitious and relentlessly busy group. Significantly, it chose its targets well and its targets complied by behaving in ways that were outrageously easy to oppose.
Once the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other civil rights legislation of the period were passed and enforced, a great question hung over the movement. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used as the title of his book, "Where Do We Go From Here?"
Its local branches, which number more than 2,200, have been active in various degrees, mostly with local issues.
Nationally, however, the organization, like much of the rest of the civil rights movement, has suffered from agenda drift.
It's the country's oldest and largest civil rights group. But polls show relatively few young people, including young African-Americans, could tell you even that much about the NAACP.
In the early 1990s, the organization's image was damaged further by power struggles and other controversies that sapped its energies and ran its budget more than $4 million into debt.
A recovery of its image and financial solvency has been led during the past three years by former congressman Kweisi Mfume, now the NAACP's president and chief executive officer, and Myrlie Evers-Williams, who left the chairmanship of the group's 64-member board last winter after three years. The debt has been wiped out and the organization reputedly is ready to come out swinging.
But at what? Before the organization can break new ground, it is determined to defend old ground. Its top priority, Mr. Mfume announced, is to preserve affirmative action, an old fight the organization feels it must refight. Mr. Mfume acknowledged the organization was "caught off guard" and virtually penniless in 1996 when California voters approved the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209. Opponents were well-organized and well-funded.
This time, Mr. Mfume says, "We will fight the fight with the same weapons as the opposition."
In other words, they're going to raise money against a similar referendum on Washington's ballot this fall.
I wish them luck, but I would be more impressed if the organization devoted some of that effort to pursuing some class-based alternatives to race-based affirmative action.
In Texas, for example, after federal courts threw out race-based affirmative action in the state's colleges, Gov. George W. Bush signed an innovative law sponsored by black and Latino legislators. It gives priority to the top 10 percent of graduates in the state's high schools at the state's most prestigious universities, the University of Texas and Texas A & M.
In its first year, the result has been an increase not only in black and Latino students but also rural whites at the two universities. As a result, Texas leaders in both parties have defused one of the most unnecessarily divisive racial issues of our times and expanded opportunities for disadvantaged youths of all colors.
That's important because today, unlike the '60s, black America is as subdivided between haves and have-nots as the nation is subdivided between blacks and whites.
Among other ideas, Bond proposed a million youth march in Atlanta this fall. If that sounds a lot like the Million Man March on Washington of 1995 or last year's Million Woman March in Philadelphia, it's not a coincidence.
Fair enough. The NAACP has a lot of experience at marching.
But, to advance today's people of color, the NAACP needs to do more than march. The NAACP of our fathers and mothers knew what needed to be done. Today's NAACP is still searching.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 5/21/98