Monday, February 16, 2009

NAACP at 100: A time for celebration and sober reflection

By DeWayne Wickham

The NAACP turned 100 this month. The centennial anniversary of the civil rights organization's birth has produced a rash of news stories that give short shrift to its contributions to this nation, and provide scant understanding of its roller-coaster ride through history.

The telling of both needs to be improved upon to put the NAACP's first 100 years into proper context. History was important to its founders, who purposefully declared its creation on Feb. 12, 1909 - the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth.

In the 20th century, when "the color line" was America's most daunting problem, the NAACP was on the cutting edge of every major civil rights battle. In 1944, it helped overturn a Texas law that had kept blacks from voting in primaries, thus ushering in change across the nation. (It also made it possible 64 years later for blacks to play a key pivotal role in the selection of Barack Obama as the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.)

Then in quick succession, the NAACP legal team, led by Thurgood Marshall, won U.S. Supreme Court rulings striking down state laws that required racial segregation on interstate trains and buses; outlawing restrictive covenants that were meant to keep blacks from buying homes in white neighborhoods; and chipping away at school segregation with high court victories negating Texas and Oklahoma laws that required separate graduate schools for black and white students. In 1954, that brilliant legal team persuaded the Supreme Court to end racial segregation in the nation's public schools, a victory that energized the civil rights movement and transformed America.

In the 20th century, no person or organization did more than the NAACP to make this country a "more perfect union" - not just for blacks, but for a broad array of Americans. This is the NAACP history that has been given short shrift.

But as much as we should celebrate the NAACP's glorious past, we must also acknowledge its inglorious moments. "The past is the cause of the present, and the present will be the cause of the future," Lincoln once said. The NAACP of today is not the NAACP of old. It is no longer a trailblazer, no more the "most effective, most consulted, most militant, most feared" civil rights organization in the world, as it was once billed. For much of the past 25 years, the NAACP has been mired in an internal power struggle.

In 1983, this infighting led the NAACP's board to certify the election of a dead man in order to oust Margaret Bush Wilson, the first black woman to chair the 64-member board. While this drawn-out battle was unfolding, the National Urban League, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH often took the lead in championing civil rights.

The NAACP sank deeper into a bog in the late '90s when two board members aligned with Chairman Myrlie Evers-Williams pleaded guilty to embezzling funds from some of the very people the organization was created to protect. Investigative committees recommended that James Ghee and Hazel Dukes be kicked off the board.

In a May 1997 closed session, the minutes of which I obtained, the board defeated a motion to oust Ghee, who was serving five years probation at the time. Seven months later, faced with criticism that the NAACP had lost its moral compass, the board voted to unseat Dukes. It also rejected an attempt by Evers-Williams to let Dukes seek re-election the following month, Ben Andrews, the investigative committee chairman, later told me.

In the past 10 years, the NAACP has had three men at its helm. Kweisi Mfume and Bruce Gordon quit after being frustrated by a heavy-handed board. Last year, Ben Jealous, a 35-year-old former journalist, was named to run day-to-day operations.

"I think that it's a real affirmation that this organization is willing to invest in the future, to invest in the ideas and the leadership of the generation that is currently raising black children in this country," Jealous told the Associated Press.

But as the NAACP celebrates its 100th birthday, the question is whether it can duplicate the successes - and avoid the pitfalls - of its past.

1 comment:

assad said...

Brother DeWayne if you go to Ossining NAACP you will find that chapter under my leadership and Carlos Coca a Puerto Rican brother who is a vet along with me had our entire chapter suspended by Hazel Dukes and National. We spoke outside with demonstrators calling on the NAACP to come out more forcefully supporting Mumia abu Jamal. If you google Sundiata Sadiq or Ossining NAACP you can see we have been basically liquidated by the leadership. I have an online video of a packed library in Ossining begging to be reinstated that was 2yrs ago. Rumor has it we are too militant. Maybe this has happened to other chapters