ATLANTA -- The Southern Christian Leadership Conference managed to save itself from a self-inflicted death blow last week. After hearing from more sensible members, conference President Charles Steele retreated from his pledge to "honor" Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who stands accused of bankrolling a dogfighting ring, at its convention in Atlanta. The old-line civil rights organization closed out its annual gathering without doing anything so foolish.
But the organization, like similar groups, is still dying a slow death. Founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his advisers in 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference struggles to find a mission, to attract followers, to raise funds. Though a crowd gathered to hear former President Bill Clinton speak at the dedication of the group's new Atlanta headquarters, his homage was due more to the organization's past than its present. (Besides, with his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, competing with Sen. Barack Obama for black votes, Mr. Clinton couldn't afford to turn down an old civil rights group.)
The Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, decades older than the SCLC, are also respected more for their traditions than their recent accomplishments. None of them has made a graceful transition to the 21st century.
The organizations were founded to secure basic rights for black Americans - including the vote, equal educational opportunities and equal employment opportunities. They campaigned to ensure that black Americans were no longer forced to the back of the bus or the end of the line. It is a testimony to the success of the civil rights movement, in which those organizations played a prominent role, that much of that agenda has been accomplished.
Racism is certainly not dead, but it is a shadow of its former self. A black woman is secretary of state. A black man is a prominent contender for the Democratic nomination for president. Black Americans are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, presidents of elite colleges and partners at prestigious law firms. Oprah Winfrey is arguably the most influential woman on the planet. And Mr. Vick, for his part, has earned more money than most people on the planet and can certainly take care of himself. Among his dream team of attorneys is Billy Martin, one of the nation's best-known criminal defense lawyers, who also happens to be black.
There are certainly many black Americans who could use help, but their troubles are not a straightforward matter of racial injustice. A huge coterie of black men is slowly disappearing into a permanent underclass, where they are not employed or employable, married or marriageable.
Certainly, racism still haunts the criminal justice system, helping to account for the high incarceration rates of black men. They are sentenced to prison stretches for nonviolent offenses that tend to yield only probation for young white men. The so-called war on drugs has been a war on black America, giving its young men criminal records - and a stigma - they will never overcome.
Yet the unhappy truth is that young black men commit violent crimes disproportionately - usually targeting other black men and women. In many poorer neighborhoods, a prison stint is a rite of passage. After years in which the homicide rate dropped drastically, murders are on the rise in black neighborhoods around the country.
This month, a black Oakland, Calif., newspaper editor, Chauncey Bailey, was gunned down execution-style, apparently because he was investigating a black criminal organization. Police have arrested a 19-year-old man who is apparently tied to the group. Even if racism were to magically disappear tomorrow, we could manage to destroy ourselves.
If the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its counterparts are still interested in rescuing black America, the worsening plight of young black men is clearly the place to begin. It's no simple matter - no easy call to action against the benighted forces of white racism. But there is no more important work to be done.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.