AS KWEISI Mfume looks back on his nine-year tenure as president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he can justifiably feel a sense of accomplishment.
Today, the NAACP is strong, widely respected and financially solvent. Its support among young people is growing; college chapters have increased by 75 percent in recent years.
Most important, the NAACP and its local chapters across America remain deeply engaged in the continuing fight to ensure that all Americans receive the justice and opportunity that are at the heart of our national creed.
As an African-American, it is not difficult for me to understand the continuing importance of America's oldest and largest civil rights organization.
When I was a small child, the NAACP's Juanita Jackson Mitchell stood with us as we desegregated a swimming pool in our hot, South Baltimore neighborhood. Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers made it possible for me to receive a good education at Baltimore City College High School and the University of Maryland School of Law.
The civil rights movement transformed my life. What may be less apparent to others who have not shared my life experience is why the organization is important to them.
On Wednesday, when Mr. Mfume recalled his vision that "colored people come in all colors," he was doing more than giving reference to the fact that the NAACP has been a multiracial organization since its founding in 1909. He was saying that, in this difficult time for America, we are all directly affected by what is happening in the ongoing struggle for civil rights.
If we are parents fighting for better public schools for our children, the NAACP is working at our side.
If we are children in a family whose budget depends upon our mother's receiving a living wage and being treated fairly in her work place, the NAACP is one of our strongest allies.
If we are being denied the affordable, high-quality health care that should be every American's right, the NAACP is at the forefront of that fight.
And those of us who believe that the federally guaranteed sanctity of our votes is our right as Americans - not some privilege that can be arbitrarily denied - know that we still are engaged in a struggle for our civil rights.
I recall all of this because when we talk about the NAACP and its future, we are considering our own future as well - whatever may be the color of our skin.
The NAACP's vital role in shaping that future is clear.
"We are a challenge organization," NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond declared last week, "an organization challenging the status quo."
This is as it should be. The NAACP's mission is to fight for our civil rights, not to conciliate those who have other priorities.
Americans should recognize that the battles for justice and equality that we fought in the last century have taken on new forms.
Although black children are no longer legally prevented from attending quality public schools, the unequal funding of public school districts continues to segregate far too many American children - black and white alike - from the high-quality education that they deserve.
While Jim Crow laws no longer bar minority patients from receiving the medical care they need and deserve, too many Americans still receive inferior health care because they lack health insurance and cannot afford the rising cost of necessary care.
The civil rights struggles of our time may be more subtle than in the past, but Americans - by the tens of millions - know that we are still in a fight.
As both Mr. Bond and Mr. Mfume have recognized, the new NAACP leadership must maintain a delicate and difficult balance. It must accept small, pragmatic gains when those are all that can be achieved.
Yet we must never lose sight of the principles that continue to be the civil rights organization's greatest strength.
The most important operational principle is this: We are Americans - people of color all - and we will never give up the fight to create a country that lives up to its creed.
Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat who represents Maryland's 7th Congressional District in the House of Representatives, is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.