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100 Years Old, NAACP Debates Its Current Role

NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous calls for fair confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor at the organization's 100th convention in New York. Jealous has said he seeks to broaden the organization's mission to encompass more than black civil rights issues.
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous calls for fair confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor at the organization's 100th convention in New York. Jealous has said he seeks to broaden the organization's mission to encompass more than black civil rights issues. (By Yanina Manolova -- Associated Press)

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So is NAACP at 100 facing the end of the civil rights era?

"It's just sort of a definitional question," Garrow said. "It's a conundrum of the label. . . . The transition from one era to another in terms of African American civil rights is really marked by the movement of African Americans into civic life and government. One could say that the election of Barack Obama marks the end of an era. It signifies the complete inclusion of black people at all levels of politics."

The presence of a black man in the nation's highest office has become a stand-in for the 1960s civil rights movement's ideal of fuller social integration of black and white communities, Garrow said. Core concerns of that time, such as geographic integration and redistribution of income, are no longer central to the discussion.

Young activists are defining their work in different terms. Basheer Jones, a 24-year-old talk radio host in Cleveland, is not a member of the NAACP; he says the organization has been out of touch. But he is attending his first NAACP convention -- at the invitation of an older member -- and calls himself a community activist, not a civil rights activist.

"This new generation of leadership has to be different. We have to have the same courage and enthusiasm, but we have to unite a little bit more despite your religion, your socioeconomic status," said Jones, who believes the current struggle is class-based. "It's a different time."

Rinku Sen, an Oakland activist who is president of the Applied Research Center, a think tank on race, said the landscape for a civil rights agenda has shifted with the country's demographics. She sees the NAACP's decision to broaden its mission beyond the black community as timely but probably difficult.

"There are a lot of new players in the game as immigrant communities have matured," Sen said. "People have the urge to come together but often find it difficult to build staying power for those alliances, and quite a lot of that loops back to racial dynamics and our inability to resolve them. There are real differences in how groups pushing for racial justice experience the problem. African Americans, Latino immigrants and South Asian Muslims don't fit in exactly the same place in the hierarchy."

Darren Hutchinson, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, said the NAACP may face an even larger problem moving into its second century.

Americans are dealing with "racial exhaustion," he said. "A lot of people are tired of talking about race. They have to find a new language for dealing with these issues."

Jewel Shears, who joined the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP last week, said the weariness some have about the subject inspired her activism. "Race is something that we have to keep talking about with all of the disparities that exist," she said. "We have to do our due diligence to help the cause."

Jealous pointed to a "constant drumbeat of racism" to make his point.

"On the one hand, we see the image of a black man getting off Air Force One. On the other hand, we see photos of kids getting turned away from a swimming pool," he said. "We can't be post-racial until we are post-racism, and until we get there, we will be on the watch."


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