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Civil Rights Groups Seeing Gradual End of Their Era

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands outside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in 1967.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands outside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in 1967. (By Benedict J. Fernandez)
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A 2007 in-house marketing survey shows that 94 percent of black respondents rated the organization favorably. Talking points said the group is where "African Americans turn to when it matters" and that "the NAACP brand is very strong."

And yet the group cannot seem to recruit the very people who hold it in such high esteem. Many see the organization as liberal and deeply partisan. Bond said the Republican Party had a "Taliban wing" in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, stoking a feud with President Bush that ended when the president attended the group's 2006 convention.

"I think the national organization should jump-start its image, kick-start its relevant programming, have a direct connection to the least among us," said Watson, the Detroit council member who made that city's NAACP office the largest branch, with 50,000 members.

In Chicago, the Nation of Islam struggles as its ailing leader, Louis Farrakhan, recovers from an illness. The group declined to discuss its membership numbers, but it has been speculated that they are far lower than they were in the 1960s.

Civil rights executives, who tend to be older, are stuck in time, said E. Ethelbert Miller, board chairman of the Institute for Policy Studies and a professor of African American studies. He said the NAACP, with its 64-member board of directors, has "a dinosaur structure."

Miller said the group should study Sen. Barack Obama's multicultural campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, with its mastery of Internet fundraising.

He said that many other organizations are struggling with change in the computer age. "You ask what happened to the NAACP, and I say look at the decline of CBS, ABC and NBC television," Miller said.

When six black teenagers in Jena, La., were being prosecuted as adults last year in the beating of a white classmate, the local branch of the NAACP played a small role in defending their rights, but it was Color of that secured their release.

Activist Al Sharpton learned about the Jena incident on the radio long after it started. Radio talk-show host Michael Baisden ranted about Jena throughout his program and helped organize bus tours to the town.

Said Miller: "What would happen if W.E.B. Du Bois or Marcus Garvey had a laptop?" Du Bois helped found the NAACP in 1909, and Garvey, a rival, started a back-to-Africa movement around the same time. "As you know with the African American community, we got to this stuff late."

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