By DeWayne Wickham
GREENSBORO, N.C. — A day after the NAACP passed a resolution calling on the "Tea Party" movement to condemn unnamed racists in its ranks, I stood inside this city's old F.W. Woolworth, the scene of a truly important civil rights battle.
The lunch counter inside the old department store — now the focal point of Greensboro's International Civil Rights Center and Museum — was the scene of a sit-in demonstration 50 years ago that sparked the greatest chapter of this nation's civil rights movement. The protest led to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The effort to end the store's refusal to serve blacks at its lunch counter was launched by four black college students.
They didn't issue a formal statement condemning the act of bigotry enraging them. They didn't try to fight their battle in the press, though their cause was certainly aided by the news coverage it got. Instead, they did something of substance: They walked up to that segregated lunch counter, sat down and requested service. Within days hundreds of people, black and white, joined their effort — a campaign that pushed Congress to outlaw discrimination in public accommodations.
Of course, if there are racists in the Tea Party movement, the NAACP should track them down and call them out by name — not inference. Ferreting out the racists among us is still important work. But the most important civil rights work the NAACP needs to do is in the economic arena.
Two years ago while campaigning for the presidency, Barack Obama told the NAACP's convention that the federal government has a responsibility to provide employment opportunities for struggling families.He reminded his audience that Martin Luther King Jr. once said the inseparable twin of racial justice is economic justice.
Back then, black unemployment was 9.9%. Today it's a whopping 15.4%. Joblessness among black teenagers in July 2008 was 27%. Now, 39.9% of black youth can't find work. For most of the past decade, black unemployment has been double that of whites.
But 10 months into his presidency, Obama told USA TODAY and the Detroit Free Press he wouldn't do anything special to address the unemployment problems of blacks. "I will tell you that I think the most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is to get the economy going again and get people hiring again," Obama said.
When black unemployment rose while the Reagan administration gave federal aid to troubled American businesses, the NAACP said the Republican president's economic policies were a "virus" that would set back blacks for generations.
So far, the NAACP hasn't challenged Obama's refusal to make a targeted effort to close this nation's black-white jobless gap while he has used federal funds to rescue failing corporations. Instead, the civil rights group announced that it will march on Washington in October to pressure Congress — not the president — to create jobs.
Joblessness is certainly a greater threat to blacks than the bigots who show up at Tea Party movement events. But the NAACP is apparently unwilling to push Obama, whom blacks played a big role in electing, to do what they asked of Reagan — so the organization will pressure Congress instead.
That makes no sense to me. The four students who challenged Woolworth's whites-only lunch counter focused their efforts on the root of their problem — and the NAACP should do the same.