Roslyn Brock named NAACP chairman, marking generation change

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010; 4:36 PM

The NAACP has selected health-care administrator Roslyn M. Brock as its chairman, marking the culmination of a generational shift for the historic civil rights organization. For the first time in NAACP's history, both its president and chair are too young to have personally experienced legalized segregation.

Brock, 44, takes the helm from civil rights pioneer Julian Bond. She will guide the association along with Benjamin Jealous, who at 37 is the youngest president in NAACP's history.

The shift comes as the association seeks to regain the influence of its heyday during the civil rights movement, and Brock said her goal is to expand NAACP's base beyond its stagnant chapter membership and narrow its focus on a few specific civil rights issues: education, health care, economic empowerment, criminal justice and civic engagement.

"As we move forward, our greatest challenge really is to hone our message to make it relevant," said Brock, who first joined NAACP as a freshman in college. "We have to recognize and to own that we can't be all things to all people and that there are new players in the space that we operate in who may be able to do some things better than we can."

Founded in 1909 by W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett to fight the lynching of blacks, the NAACP remains the most recognized name in the civil rights establishment with hundreds of branches, Brock said. Yet, it faces the perplexing challenge of marshaling young African Americans to deal with racial discrimination long after the legal battles of the civil rights movement have been won.

Brock and Jealous, who was named president two years ago, are now tasked with finding a way to reignite what they call the association's "front-line" activism. As president, Jealous is the face of the organization. Brock and the board's focus is setting policies. Jealous said both see their mission as no less pressing than the struggles faced by African Americans in other eras.

"We are the so-called children of the dream," Jealous said. "We were told that everything was fair and all we had to do was work hard. That worked well for many of us, but all of us realize that we are a part of a generation that is both the most murdered in the country and the most incarcerated on the planet."

Both Brock and Jealous said they want to see NAACP catch up with the technological advancements in social activism. Smaller, younger groups, such as Oakland-based Color of Change, have built robust online activism networks. Jealous began last year to up NAACP's online presence, with live streaming of video and online campaigns in support of health-care reform and other issues. Brock is also plugged in, and has Twitter on her BlackBerry, a Facebook account and plans to begin blogging.

"The jury is still out on the relevance of the NAACP, but this is definitely a step in the right direction," said Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University. "The biggest structural challenge [facing NAACP] is in an era where there is codified equality and you have a black president, you have to figure out what a civil rights agenda looks like. No one has figured that out."

Although it had been a force in winning major civil rights battles for decades, NAACP has been criticized in recent years for not remaining relevant -- continuing to hold protest marches and bureaucratic meetings. The average age of its 64-member board of directors is 58. But NAACP is fiscally solid and has proved its staying power, having recovered from crippling scandals and layoffs in the 1990s. It is now increasing its staff, raising money and planning for the future, Bond said. It claims 500,000 members, including nonpaying members and sometime donors who have signed up online.

Brock immediately takes over the chairmanship from Bond, who is a supporter of both Jealous and Brock. Bond had announced he would step down after the association's centennial celebration, ending a 12-year run. He has been the modern face of the organization and will continue helping NAACP raise money.

"There's nothing new in civil rights. The struggle for racial justice by people of color is more than 100 years old, and despite the successes we've had it continues on until this day," Bond said of the work faced by the next generation.

Brock, who lives in Elkridge and is director of advocacy at Bon Secours Health System, has been active in the NAACP for more than two decades but is relatively unknown outside the organization. She met her late husband at an NAACP meeting, has deep roots in NAACP's connections to the black church community and in the early 1990s pushed to make access to health care one of its standing civil rights issues.

She has served as vice chair since 2001, and was the first woman to hold that position. She is the fourth woman to be selected chairman, a position that is chosen by NAACP's 64-member board of directors. Her selection comes only months after the Southern Christian Leadership Conference chose as its chair Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., putting women atop two organizations that have been at the center of the civil rights movement.

Brock had been groomed for the position by NAACP elders -- including Bond and former chairman Myrlie Evers-Williams.

"You must nurture your leaders for tomorrow and at some point let them move forward," said Evers-Williams, widow of slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers. "I just don't want to now see those of us who have been the foundation dismissed as though we didn't exist."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company