If the Maryland State NAACP is going to maintain its influence, it will have to battle complacency among blacks as well as racism against blacks, according to NAACP leaders meeting in Prince George's County this weekend to celebrate the organization's 50th anniversary.
Maryland boasts one of the largest and most active state branches in the country. But the organization's leaders fear the NAACP might lose its power base in coming years if it doesn't rekindle its image in the black community.
Where membership in the NAACP was once considered a fixture of black life in America, the organization is now often viewed as outdated or irrelevant by younger blacks and those who have achieved social or professional success.
"People got comfortable in their good jobs and their nice homes after the great gains we made as a society following the civil rights movement," said Marjorie R. Green, vice president of operations for the Maryland State NAACP.
"Those people don't realize that the struggle is not over, the war has not yet been won. We are still fighting racism and injustice and now is not the time to sit back and put your feet up."
The challenge, leaders say, is to persuade the state's growing middle-class that the organization can still serve its needs. "We have to reach out and remind people that things are not as good as they seem, that no matter how well off they are or no matter where they live, this organization still has some relevance in their lives," said Roscoe R. Nix, president of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP.
Nix, who will retire from his post in December, said local branches with large middle-class populations, such as the ones in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, have tried to court black residents by offering a wider array of programs such as education seminars, financial workshops and awards programs for outstanding students and civic leaders.
"We have to sell ourselves just like the people who sell soap or automobiles," Nix said. "We have to change along with the times if we are going to stay strong and vital."
The NAACP, as a rule, does not release membership figures. But after years of steady decline, state NAACP leaders say they have seen a slight rise in membership in the last year, particularly after a spate of racially motivated attacks were reported in the Baltimore area. And several members who had not been active in recent years pledged to return to the organization after President Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990 Monday. About 150 people attended the conference yesterday.
"Unfortunately in this country the only time that people move is when they see a crisis before them and they have to react," said Prince George's State's Attorney Alex Williams, who attended a luncheon during the conference yesterday at the University of Maryland. "Someone has to be threatened today with an issue before they make a move. It is really too bad because people fought for the right to go to school and to vote and to sit down in any restaurant they pleased. Today we take those things for granted,"
State NAACP leaders said their agenda for the '90s will include more community outreach, particularly to young residents. The organization has traditionally had difficulty attracting younger members, particularly in the 21- to 35-year-old age group.
"This organization is going to have to do more to encourage young people to get involved," said Tamara Lawrence, 17, who drove in from Pocomoke City on the Eastern Shore to attend the weekend conference. "I told some of my friends about this conference and they didn't even know that the NAACP was still active. They mostly think it's a thing of the past."