Changing history

The Baltimore Sun

For a century, the NAACP fought lynch mobs, demanded fairness in schoolhouses and cemented a movement of foot soldiers to wage battles large and small against the indignities of legal discrimination.

As the nation's oldest civil rights group celebrates its centennial, the circumstances might be different but the mission is the same, its president says.

"In black communities across the country, we still see too many young black men killed in the prime of their lives," NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous said yesterday. "No longer is it men hanging from trees, it's men in body bags. Our children now can go to the same schools, but too often it's the same poorly resourced school."

And while the ultimate barrier has been shattered - a black man is president - there is still "a battle for the whole group to be treated fairly," Jealous said.

But as the organization prepares for another 100 years of fighting for equality in the criminal justice system, in education and in the workplace, some of its veterans say it faces new challenges to remain relevant in the Obama age.

"The organization needs to assess its place in history right now," said J. Whyatt Mondesire, an NAACP board member from Philadelphia.

"Understand what it accomplished, what it failed to accomplish and what it needs to do to remain relevant to young people who no longer view discrimination, segregation and racial identity as the primary definition of their lives' opportunities."

In an effort to chart the organization's future, Jealous released a report yesterday mapping the NAACP's priorities in a changing America.

It calls on the Obama administration and Congress to raise funding for education, establish a nine-month moratorium on foreclosure and ensure that billions in stimulus package money is spent fairly.

The report also urges politicians to guarantee fair hiring practices for new jobs, at a time when black unemployment - consistently higher than it is for whites - is in double digits.

Lawmakers should pass legislation that protects black homeowners from predatory lending, Jealous said. Many black borrowers were issued high-cost mortgages, and the organization projects that 10 percent of blacks will be affected by foreclosure.

Jealous says the NAACP needs to act boldly to attract young people by addressing high dropout rates in underfunded schools, racial profiling by police and workplace discrimination, which he said is worse during a recession.

"When you are moving again, then you are making a difference," he said of the need for action. "Then it is worth their time."

At 36, Jealous is the NAACP's youngest leader. When he was chosen last year, many observers saw his age as an asset to energizing the membership. Still, some observers say the NAACP must find new ways to connect with a generation that thinks civil rights is something that happened 40 years ago.

NAACP members should go into schools as speakers and help develop curriculum that goes beyond the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month, said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

In Philadelphia, local NAACP leaders are planning to bring together civil rights stalwarts and young people to discuss what the organization should accomplish and how.

For now, how to appeal to this younger generation is anyone's guess, Mondesire said: "I don't know," he said. "I would be presumptuous if I said I [knew]."

Mondesire said he attended Obama's inauguration with his son, a college sophomore, whose outlook on civil rights is distinct from his own.

"He watched in his own eyes an African-American ascend to the highest position in the land, and he now believes it is possible for him to do the same thing," he said.

"That's not something I thought about at his age. His life's dreams are radically different than mine."

Erica McLaughlin, 25, who joined the NAACP in seventh grade, said its youth chapters do a great job keeping high school students interested in civil rights.

But once they leave school, they don't always feel that they fit in.

"Some of us feel there isn't a place for us in the branches, that it's an old, dying organization with members that are older," said McLaughlin, a former NAACP board member from Columbia. "I think the branch structure needs to change. In many ways it's dying, both literally and figuratively."

She said more chapters should follow the lead of Washington's branch, where people communicate on Facebook and strategize over happy hours and networking parties.

The organization should also do more online, through e-mail and Facebook, she said. But some branches have no Web site, and others have offices with no Internet access, she said.

McLaughlin said that while some of her peers aren't interested in activism, many are hungry for it, especially Obama supporters who were energized by the presidential campaign. The NAACP should seek to replicate the energy of the campaign, she said.

"The NAACP is not a sexy organization now," she said. "It's not like the national Rock the Vote type of thing that people want to join and go to the benefit concert.

"But Obama is such an icon. And the NAACP needs to become an iconic thing to become part of the national culture."

Jealous said he hopes Obama's message of community activism could help the NAACP.

"Community organizing is cool again, and that makes our life a lot easier," he said. "You have got to focus on the issues that matter. You have to give people the opportunity to win."

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, 69, maintains the organization can appeal to young people while continuing the kind of advocacy it has done for decades.

"People always want to know what new thing are you doing," he said. "It may sound odd, but we don't do anything new. We fight racial discrimination, and we've been at it for 100 years, and we still have a job to do."

Bond said the organization has always faced challenges; the present day is no different.

"If you look back over these 100 years, we have never had enough members and we have never had enough money," he said. "And on our 100th anniversary, we need more members and we need more money. But we continue to do what we do."

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