After six days of speeches, parties and promises by political candidates, the NAACP's 91st annual convention ended last night in Baltimore with an inspiring address by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who told delegates they must demand an end to social injustice.
Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, also urged members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to judge presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore by their actions, not their words.
Jackson, a presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988, said blacks must register to vote, then attack the polls in record numbers in November.
"Our goal was to drive home the issues of politics and political involvement," Mfume said yesterday after he and Jackson gave a late-afternoon news conference.
"When we set the convention theme in January, voting, voter registration and turnout were, in fact, discussed in a meaningful way. We wanted to take advantage of this being a presidential election year to remind candidates that no one gets a free ride.
"In the 117 days to go before the election, we want the presidential parties, candidates and independents to look in a very serious way at addressing the needs of all Americans."
Mfume made no apologies for the heavily political tone of the convention, which an estimated 10,000 attended. Bush spoke to delegates Monday; New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader addressed the NAACP Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Gore spoke to convention-goers, followed by President Clinton yesterday.
Jackson insisted last night that NAACP members hold all of the candidates accountable.
He called former President George Bush's appointment of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court a "lasting monument to racial cynicism." He denounced Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for his failure to support affirmative action.
And he said Texas Gov. George W. Bush "told the NAACP to butt out" of the South Carolina Confederate flag issue. Then, in a quip that generated lengthy laughter, Jackson said: "Stay out of the bushes."
Jackson said both Bush and Gore must go beyond rhetoric.
"Bush says I'm here. Gore says I'm with you, and Gore is more with us than Bush is here," Jackson said. "But freedom never came from top down. It never came from the White House down.
"It always came from your house and my house up. Measure the candidates by their budget priorities and not just their rhetoric."
Since the convention opened Saturday, many issues surfaced - among them education, poverty, AIDS, health care, unfair prison sentences, the widening gap in income between blacks and whites and the digital divide.
But all of those issues took a back seat to politics in the convention, the theme of which was "Race To Vote."
Jackson pointed out last night that Texas has 1.2 million African-Americans who are eligible to vote, yet 300,000 are unregistered.
"You cannot expect to hit home runs if you don't show up for the game or leave your bat at home," he said to loud applause.
At last year's convention in New York, Mfume and NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond announced an ambitious plan to register 4 million new voters by this election. They announced Saturday that volunteers have reached about 70 percent - 2.8 million voters - of their goal.
Words from the young
Convention participants from young to old talked about the need to vote and become more active.
Yesterday, at the Youth Conclusion Session, at which NAACP Youth Board member LaKeitha J. Daniels presided, students talked about a need to stay up on issues, get more involved in the NAACP and vote when they come of age.
"Failure to learn from the past is failure to succeed in the future," Erika Barrera, 15, of Arlington, Texas, told her colleagues at the session. "If we don't know where we came from, we are going to fail."
Erika said she has been an NAACP member for three years and grew interested in the organization after her brother was president of the Arlington Youth Council, a post she now holds.
Daniels advised the 200 or more students to pay close attention to Gore and Bush as the election draws near.
"I think we need to look at the two presidential candidates to see ... whether they'll continue the president's commission on historically black colleges and universities," Daniels, 20, said.
And Kyla Jones, 10, a student at Berry Elementary School in Waldorf, Md., said that at the next NAACP convention she hopes her peers get a chance to be heard.
"Our elders were speaking before us, and we need a chance to get to talk because we cannot hold back our thoughts because we are the future," she said to resounding applause.
Convention organizers made certain to include youth in this year's event. In fact, the last item scheduled in the blue convention activities book was a Youth Jamboree Special that was to last until 1 a.m. today.
Most delegates said they enjoyed this year's convention - expected to have an economic impact of millions of dollars - and were rejuvenated by the speakers, particularly the Rev. Al Sharpton, who addressed the crowd Sunday, and the first lady.
Also last night, television personality Oprah Winfrey was awarded in absentia the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honor.
Today, Mfume, Bond and other NAACP leaders will hold a wrap-up meeting. It will be attended by members of the New Orleans NAACP branch, host for next year's event.