DETROIT — DETROIT -- Those who question the need for an NAACP in the post-civil rights era need only look at the Supreme Court's recent decision concerning integration in public schools or the federal government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said last night in a speech kicking off the organization's 98th annual convention.
"As we find ourselves refighting battles we thought we had already won, we are reminded that the NAACP is as needed now as ever before," Bond said to a crowd of several thousand at the Cobo Conference/Exhibition Center.
Bond's 45-minute remarks served as a rallying cry for the thousands of rank-and-file members of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He said that despite recent setbacks, which include financial troubles and the departure of its president and CEO, the nation's oldest civil rights organization remains strong and has much work to do.
The 67-year-old civil rights stalwart rattled off a list of problems that minority communities endure: poverty, a biased criminal justice system, denial of voting rights, unequal education, disparities in earning power and job opportunities, and lack of health care.
"Ninety-eight years after it began, the NAACP is still fighting to eliminate the racism and prejudice that feed these inequalities and social ills," he said. "As long as these issues exist, the NAACP will be needed as an aggressive force seeking to eradicate them."
Bond did not shy away from what has become his annual blistering critique of the Bush administration. Three years ago, Bond's convention speech harshly criticized President Bush's domestic agenda and the war in Iraq, prompting an Internal Revenue Service probe into the group's tax-exempt status. Bond called the inquiry politically motivated, and last year the IRS dropped the investigation, concluding that the speech did not violate rules prohibiting political activity by tax-exempt groups.
Last night, Bond took jabs at the administration's handling of voting rights and Hurricane Katrina, and urged that there be "no more Bush appointees to the Supreme Court."
The high court's recent decision that school systems cannot seek to achieve or maintain integration through measures that take explicit account of a student's race is akin to condemning "minority children to secondary status before they've even started secondary school," Bond said.
"Truth is, there are no nonracial remedies for racial discrimination," said Bond, who teaches courses at the University of Virginia and American University on the civil rights movement. "In order to get beyond race, you have to go to race. To suggest race neutrality as a remedy for racial discrimination is sophistry of the highest order."
Hurricane Katrina, Bond said, serves as the best examination of "the state of race in Bush's America." The storm and its aftermath exposed the race and class chasms in society today and government inaction to repair them, he said.
"We ought to use the lessons of Katrina to recapture the race issue from the political right, to return to a time when whites say, as President Johnson did in 1965: 'Their cause is our cause, too. Because it's not just Negroes, it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.'"
In his remarks, Bond was frank about the sudden resignation of NAACP President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon, who Bond said "couldn't align our mission with his." He also spoke bluntly about the organization's recent budget shortfall, which resulted in 70 employees losing their jobs.
"The NAACP will emerge from this period healthier than we were before," he said to rousing applause. "The right-sizing process, as painful as it is for those most affected, forces us to be a leaner, meaner and keener organization."
Bond applauded local branches for their efforts in fighting injustice and noted recent opinion polls that he said confirm that blacks still look to the NAACP for leadership. He stressed that the NAACP is actively searching for a CEO and has embarked on an effort to raise more than $100 million by its centennial celebration in 2009.
Earlier, NAACP leaders made a plea for donations. In a scene reminiscent of a Sunday morning church service, ushers walked the ballroom aisles with collection plates, asking members to drop in contributions as organ music played.
That didn't sit well with members such as Artina Shumpert, 45, of Peru, Ind., who recently rejoined the NAACP after not having been active since she was a teen.
"It just seemed too forceful," she said. "I don't believe in doing things that way. When I was active, we used to go door to door getting members."
But Shumpert, a steelworker, who rejoined the NAACP to fight discrimination in her small town, said she was inspired by Bond's remarks, particularly his words about the devastation of Katrina and the government's inadequate response.
"He just hit the nail on the head," she said.
Others said the collection was fitting and sent a message to anyone in doubt of the NAACP's relevance.
"I thought it was absolutely appropriate," said Harold Crumpton, president of the St. Louis branch. "It was a demonstration of the dedication of the NAACP's branches. It sent a signal to the world that we are not going anywhere."