The NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights group, is usually considered an organization for older folk, but the face of its membership is becoming increasingly less wrinkled.
Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has many members age 60 and over. But in Baltimore, where its 91st annual convention is being held this week, and across the country, people under age 40 are helping make key decisions for the organization, providing a pool of young leaders and helping secure the agency's future.
Affiliated with the NAACP are 450 youth councils for ages 12 to 18, including four in Baltimore, and 140 youth and college chapters, including about a dozen in Maryland. Seven of the NAACP's 64 national board seats are reserved for people under age 25. And much of the convention is dedicated to youth, including a rally tonight, an advisers luncheon tomorrow and a youth jamboree to close out the convention on Thursday.
Winners were announced yesterday in the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO). The annual competition, which involved an estimated 2,000 high school students this year, showcased talent in 25 categories, including dance, oratory, music composition, mathematics, chemistry and architecture.
"I think it's good that the NAACP tries to influence youth by giving out cash prizes and things like that," said Kamon Mack, 15, of Rosedale, N.Y. "These days, so many young people are getting involved in negative things like gang violence, sex and drugs, and I think the NAACP allows kids to show their talent and lets them see that they ... can make a difference."
Kamon exemplifies the students the NAACP wants to reach. Aside from ACT-SO, he is not affiliated with the civil rights organization but is considering joining.
Yet his age group isn't where the most critical need for increased membership lies, NAACP officials say.
"There's a perception that we're not youth-oriented," said NAACP board member Lacy Steele, 68, of Seattle. "We do have a void ... between ages 25 and 40. We've got to let the 25- to 40-year-olds know we're a viable organization, and we have something to offer, and they have something to offer."
A U.S. Census Bureau population survey from March 1999 found there are 10,870,000 African-Americans ages 25 to 44. The NAACP has a half-million members.
To encourage membership among those ages 25 to 40, the Youth, College and Young Adults division held a party for the age group Friday at the Havana Club, atop Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.
A news release said it was "designed to introduce the NAACP to young adults by engaging and challenging them to embrace their civic responsibility." NAACP President Kweisi Mfume spoke briefly at the event.
"He spoke to the need for those 25 to 40 to be involved in the association and the fact that our agenda, especially as it relates to economic development and economic reciprocity, were the types of issues that young people could be interested in," said Jeffrey Johnson, 27, assistant director of programs who works at NAACP headquarters in Northwest Baltimore. "I think the organization is taking the steps that are necessary to begin to appeal to a generation that has not been involved at the level that their parents were involved."
Of course, thousands of young adults are immersed in the NAACP, including the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, former national youth and college director; Johnson, a former NAACP youth council adviser and adviser to his college chapter at the University of Toledo (Ohio); and Michael Bond, 34, an Atlanta city councilman.
The son of NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond, the younger Bond is in his third year as deputy director of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, which averages 4,000 to 6,000 members.
He also served as youth council adviser for the Atlanta chapter and agrees that the NAACP is doing well to reach out to young adults.
"I think they're going to have to continue to show young people what kind of return they're going to get for being in the NAACP," Bond said."They're going to have to continue to show what is the modern benefit of being a member, no matter what year it is."
Like Bond and Johnson, Zenith Houston, 30, has been affiliated with the NAACP for more than a decade. She is a former president of the South Carolina Youth and College division. She became involved in the NAACP through the University of South Carolina, where she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Houston is manager of corporate development for the NAACP and works at headquarters.
"There is a commitment on behalf of President Mfume and Chairman Bond to develop and support young leaders," Houston said. She noted other young leaders, including Eric Bryant, assistant director of national field operations; Hiewet Senghor, national director of the youth and college division; and Caya Lewis, national health coordinator.
Senghor, 25, said she thinks young adults need to be shown how they can benefit.
"It's simply a matter of presenting opportunities to them and engaging them in a discussion and challenging them to contribute," said Senghor, a former youth council member in Atlanta.
Steele, of the national board, said he thinks more young adults don't get involved with the NAACP because they have obtained a measure of success and fail to recognize who is largely responsible.
"They've got pretty good jobs, but they don't realize they got that on somebody's shoulders," Steele said. "They need to give something back, think about the bridge they came over and reach back to help someone."
Even so, Steele acknowledges thousands of young people are fired up about the NAACP.
Leonce H. Thierry, president of the Lawton (Okla.) branch of the NAACP, concurs. "I think the young peoples' movement is booming, but they've got to be guided," said Thierry, 70. "We could do better. We've got to teach our young people about economic development."
Thierry's grandson, Patrick Lyons, accompanied him to the Baltimore convention.
"I take him with me everywhere and let him see," Thierry said. "It's very important to let them know they need to participate in the NAACP."
Locally, hundreds of youngsters participate in the NAACP. Michael Hunt, 16, president of the youth council of New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore, helped lead a youth rally at the church on Thursday.
"When I was about 10, I started getting active in the NAACP," said Michael, a senior at Polytechnic Institute. "The NAACP was actually new to me, but I learned about it through my church."
In a recent speech at another church, Michael said he cautioned his peers against forgetting "the people who have made a difference in our lives and for our generation."
Sun researcher Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.