The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest and most conservative civil rights organization, has shown a remarkable penchant for survival.
Now 71 years old, the NAACP has managed to outlast other more visible and vocal civil rights groups that sprouted up during the 1960s. It has never had to change its name, even after "colored" was rejected by black-consciousness objectors. And as the NAACP shifted its front line from the streets of southern cities to the halls of the nation's courtrooms, it never lost its respectability.
So the NAACP last night had no problem surviving its first annual fellowship ball, a comedy of errors that would have folded lesser and less resilient organizations. They planned for 200 persons to answer the mailed invitations and pay the $25 to attend the buffet, but 500 did so. There was not enough space in the Washington Room at the Thomas Circle International Inn, so they moved half the party into an adjoining room.
And then an announcer from the stage made the mistake of telling the crowd (half still in the hallway) that the buffet was ready, "serve yourselves," sending 500 conservative pinstriped suits and evening gowns colliding in a mesh of confusion.
"Because of the fellowship and the harmony theme, we did not want to turn anybody away," explained the ball's coordinator, NAACP life-member Ralph Cook.
The people didn't seem to mind, despite the half-hour wait just to enter the tiny room and despite the dispiriting information from hotel officials that there would be an even longer wait while the cook frantically prepared more of everything. In fact, most Naacp members said it was a significant show of force for an organization that many people thought dormant.
D.C. City Council member Jerry A. Moore, Jr. (R-At-Large), a Baptist minister who gave the invocation, asked the Lord not to let the organization "grow weary in the struggle." Moore wore one of his red-and-white "You Can Depend On Jerry Moore" buttons, a left-over from his primary campaign.
Another primary winner, H.R. Crawford, newly elected Democratic nominee for the Ward 7 Council seat, said he was a longtime member of the NAACP's executive board. "Got to help the cause," Crawford said, "but it's so widespread now." Crawford was combing the crowd for his campaign manager, former D.C. Human Rights Director James Baldwin, who was lost somewhere in the back of the line.
Meanwhile, 66-year-old board member Lee Junius -- an NAACP member for 44 years -- was reminiscing about the old days of the struggle. Junius was a front line soldier in the integration fight, arrested 23 times in demonstrations and thrown in jails from Alabama to L.A.
"Me and King," Junius said -- the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, he explained to a reporter he thought was too young to know -- "Me and King, we went to jail together three times, we did the bus boycott together." Junius also recalled, with more than a tinge of nostalgia, the Miami cafeteria sit-in -- "We sat there for 24 hours until we integrated it."
Junius, like other old-time members there, conceded that the organization has changed its strategies and tactics since the 1960s. "We're getting down to issues now," he said, like school busing, public education policies, and jobs for unemployed black workers.
Rev. Edward Hailes, president of the D.C. NAACP, said while scanning the crowds waiting patiently to get close to the door. "See this turnout? People know that black people are in trouble." Hailes said, "There have been a lot of people who thought the battle was over. But people are realizing that the gains they have made are eroding."
"All we need now are some workers to help capitalize on this support," Hailes said.