Civil Rights Groups Seeing Gradual End of Their Era

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 5, 2008

Forty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, the storied organizations that propelled the modern-day civil rights movement alongside him are either struggling to stay relevant or struggling to stay alive.

In Atlanta, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) -- which was founded in 1957 after Alabama's Montgomery bus boycott and was led by King through the most difficult days of the movement -- clings to life. Three years ago, utilities shut off the lights and the phones when the group did not pay its bills.

In New York, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which helped shape the movement's philosophy after adopting Mohandas K. Gandhi's doctrine of nonviolent protest, is scarcely known outside Manhattan. CORE conceded that it now has about 10 percent of the 150,000 members it listed in the 1960s.

In Baltimore, the near-century-old NAACP, which tore down racial barriers with deft lawyering in the courts, recently cut a third of its administrative staff because of budget shortfalls. For decades, the NAACP asserted that it was the largest civil rights group, with about half a million dues-paying members, but one of its former presidents recently acknowledged that it has fewer than 300,000.

Some groups have disappeared, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized the Freedom Rides that drew sympathy to their cause and which was later led by firebrands such as Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. Others, such as the National Urban League, remain viable but have diminished visibility.

"They don't really exist now," said the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a former interim director of the SCLC, who spoke with pain in his voice. He added: "They're just names. There has been so little activity from so many of them. SCLC rose from the dead, but we're not so certain life has been blown into it yet. And the NAACP is vital, but they're not doing what I'd expect."

The groups' decline has been slow but inexorably driven by factors both within and outside their control. They were the subjects of government spying and harassment. A proliferation of black organizations with niche audiences -- lawyers, engineers, accountants, journalists -- took away middle-class members. The rise in the 1970s of groups such as the Black Panthers, which espoused a melodramatic militancy, made them seem tepid.

Some activists say that the more traditional civil rights groups may be victims of their greatest successes: the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of the mid-1960s. Those laws paved the way for an exploding number of African American politicians who seized a share of the leadership. Today, radio deejays, Internet groups such as Color of and organizations such as the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights are orchestrating bus rides, marches and other actions once performed by civil rights groups.

As the groups were drained of power, they sometimes hurt themselves. CORE's most charismatic liberal leader, James Farmer, resigned and was replaced by a conservative. The NAACP fired an executive director in 1994 for using its money to settle a sexual harassment suit against him.

And for decades, the groups did not employ more sophisticated marketing and membership tools used by other organizations, such as AARP and the National Rifle Association.

"Not enough of us had recognized change," CORE Chairman Roy Innis said. "We were spoiled by the heyday of the civil rights movement, where attention came whether we recruited or not."

Others involved in the groups are critical of their status today.

JoAnn Watson, a Detroit City Council member who ran the local NAACP office in the 1990s, said the organizations are living off their reputations. "They benefit from the name that has been earned by the blood of the ancestors," she said.

Michael Meyers, a former NAACP executive, recalled when the group's initials inspired fear. "People answered the phones; they thought they were going to be sued," he said. "But not now."

The drop in stature may have been inevitable, said Roger Wilkins, an assistant attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson who advised the groups. "Black people didn't have opportunities in the '30s and '40s and '50s," he said. "They couldn't be mayors, so they became presidents of black colleges or leaders of civil rights organizations. But at the end of the '60s, all kinds of pathways opened up, and civil rights organizations had to compete for leadership."

With advances in education, employment and buying power, some have argued, civil rights organizations have become passe. But group leaders bristle at the notion.

A report released this week by the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank, said that black America remains troubled. Despite marginal advances in education and jobs, the income gap between black and white Americans has grown so large since King's death that it would take more than 500 years for black people to catch up under the current pace of change, the report said. The divide between black and white wealth is so wide that achieving parity would take more than 600 years.

Organization leaders said that they have made mistakes since King's death but that they were also weakened by outside forces. As the White House was enacting civil rights laws, the FBI was infiltrating organizations under the secret Counter Intelligence Program known as COINTELPRO. After the 1970s, media attention turned away from the civil rights movement, the group leaders said.

Ineffective marketing and the lack of coverage led to public apathy, Innis said. "The lessening of attention and accurate reporting of our activities made it difficult to point out our civil rights victory and the new direction we were moving in," he said.

Charles Steele, president and chief executive of the SCLC, acknowledged that squabbling nearly doomed his organization. But, he said, the SCLC is coming back. The group says it has 150,000 members at more than 70 branches, but a 2004 analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that only 730 members paid the $25 membership dues.

"We moved into a brand-new $3.3 million building," Steele said. "We're the only civil rights organization in history to build from the ground up and own its own building."

At the NAACP, Chairman Julian Bond said the future "looks good."

The group helped lead efforts to reauthorize the voting rights and civil rights acts, and provided relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

NAACP officials say that their voter registration drives led to a surge of black voters in the past two presidential elections and that the group continues to fight discrimination in the courts, as it did with Brown v. Board of Education.

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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