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Critics of Old Guard Take Black Activism Online

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008

The new black revolution, as singer Gil Scott-Heron famously predicted, is not being televised.

It is raging online.

A growing cadre of young black activists is using the Internet in an attempt to eclipse traditional civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and hit the refresh button on the civil rights movement. Bloggers with names such as the Cruel Secretary, and blogs called What About Our Daughters? and the African American Political Pundit, have railed against groups in the "black-o-sphere," saying they do not understand young black Americans, are behind the times and react too slowly to incidents involving the younger generation.

The leaders of the fledgling movement -- Van Jones and James Rucker of ColorOfChange.org -- may not be familiar to many, but their work is. They circulated a letter and a petition last week promising that the Democrats will pay a "political price" if they overturn the will of black and young voters and choose Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y) as the party's nominee over Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Jones and Rucker were also the first to successfully raise awareness about the cases of six black teenagers initially charged with attempted murder for beating a white classmate in Jena, La. The campaign led to one of the largest civil rights marches in the South in recent years.

Blogger Gina McCauley, 32, who is organizing the first conference of nonwhite bloggers this summer in Atlanta, said that what Jones and Rucker have started "can potentially become a new Niagara movement," a reference to the small contingent of black intellectuals, including W.E.B. Du Bois, who met near Niagara Falls in 1905 to form an organization to oppose segregation. The organization eventually became the NAACP.

Others have another name for the new efforts by black bloggers: Civil Rights 2.0. Blogger L.N. Rock said that if abolitionist Frederick Douglass, former congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin and "people like that were around today, they would have blogs."

"The NAACP's youth-outreach efforts are dysfunctional," Rock said. "We would have been glad to work with them had they asked. If you're talking about the talented tenth, we are the new talented tenth," a reference to a concept by Du Bois of a group of exceptional black men.

"The skill sets of the bloggers is no joke," Rock said. "These guys have doctorates. They're not being used."

But overtaking traditional civil rights groups, which have built their reputations over time, will take more than words, computer savvy and bravado. The NAACP alone has more than 300,000 members who pay dues and an additional 325,000 who have signed up online, the group's spokesman said. ColorOfChange.org has about 400,000 online members, Jones said.

Although the NAACP's financial resources and membership have declined since its heyday, the group has the most recognized name in civil rights, a dedicated core of lawyers and hundreds of local branches to which black Americans can turn in times of trouble.

But, Jones said, groups such as the NAACP do not understand the hip-hop generation and never reached out, forcing young African Americans to find their own way. "We were raised by wolves in some ways," he said.

Several years ago in San Francisco, where Jones is an activist, he and other black bloggers led protests against the city's black mayor, Willie Brown, over the issue of police brutality. "Willie was this civil rights figure," Jones said, "but when we protested, all you could hear were crickets chirping."

Jones co-founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in 1996 and started a police watch campaign. Since then, the center has gone on to run an anti-youth-prison campaign called Books Not Bars, an anti-violence campaign called Silence the Violence and a Green-Collar Jobs campaign that seeks to train low-income African Americans and Latinos to fill environmental jobs such as installing home solar panels.

"The center doesn't just bring new players to issues like economic equality -- it insists that we change the basic way we've been approaching these issues and start to see new solutions," said Michelle de Pass, a program officer for the Ford Foundation, which gives the center a $300,000 annual grant.

The center was only a start for Jones. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, he said, he could hardly contain his disgust as black people slept on interstate ramps while the Bush administration was slow to respond.

Jones called Rucker, a former director of grass-roots mobilization for MoveOn.org whom leaders there praise as "brilliant." Jones said that if dozens of white grandmothers had been suffering in the streets, MoveOn would have acted. "We need to start our own MoveOn," Jones said.

Rucker envisioned a computer-age movement. "We started ColorOfChange on the assumption that we could do civil-rights-type work," he said. "Our model was MoveOn. What this new black civil rights movement was going to look like is different people being engaged in a way that makes a broader impact."

A year later, Jones and Rucker heard about the incident in Jena, La., and organized bloggers. They highlighted the blogs on their Web site and in e-mail blasts. Two powerful syndicated black radio disc jockeys, Michael Baisden and Tom Joyner, amplified the message to their huge morning and afternoon drive-time audiences. Many of the activists did not think the teenagers were entirely innocent but thought the attempted-murder charges for the fight were excessive.

"We turned up the heat on the governor as she was leaving office and forced her to answer the question: What does justice look like in Louisiana?" Rucker said.

The NAACP, spokesman Richard McIntyre said, "was involved in Jena from the start. No one individual can claim credit. It was a community effort. We helped organize the march and the rallies. The NAACP worked with Harvard University and Southern University . . . to help develop a legal team for the defendants."

He added: "The NAACP will always have detractors. There will always be people who think we're not doing enough. In terms of any movement, there's always been more than one organization. If the NAACP isn't a fit for you, then we encourage people to get involved another way."

Jakada Imani, executive director of the Ella Baker Center, said the ideas of black youth will keep the new groups relevant.

He compared the center's efforts to those of corporate innovators that captured broader audiences, saying, "We're watching what Apple is doing, what Google is doing, because we don't want to fall behind."

Activist Lateefah Simon, 31, said leaders of traditional groups do not know people like Jones and Rucker. "The old black guard hasn't figured out how to transfer the knowledge and the power to the new guard," she said.

Simon, who in 2003 became the youngest woman ever to win a MacArthur Fellowship when she worked with the Center for Young Women's Development in San Francisco, said she has not been recruited either. "In the civil rights community, the voices of black women are too often kicked to the curb," she said.

Strong words, but not nearly as strong as what is said on black blogs. L.N. Rock, who helped form Afrospear, a network of black bloggers, wrote in the African American Political Pundit that the NAACP has been missing in action on issues involving women and called its 65-member board "the board of the living dead."

Andrea Plaid, a blogger whose screen name is the Cruel Secretary, has written that the NAACP stood by as activist C. Delores Tucker, beginning in the 1990s, fought Black Entertainment Television and rappers over the way music videos and lyrics portray black women.

"They caught the train when it was halfway down the tracks," Plaid said. "The NAACP should have said that 'for the advancement of colored people, this is not right.' The question my generation has is 'Why aren't you reacting? You're the NAACP. Why aren't you out front?' "

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