Bernard J. Battle joined the Greensboro, N.C., branch of the NAACP in 1962, when the organization was frequently in the streets, the courts and the headlines.
It organized boycotts of Jim Crow merchants, initiated lawsuits to integrate hospitals, pressed the city government to hire more blacks and led the fight to desegregate the local schools.
Those heady days are gone, and so is much of the publicity. Gone too are about half of the 2,000 members of the branch, one of 1,700 local NAACP chapters. In that sense the Greensboro branch is a fitting symbol for the NAACP as a whole.
The once-premier civil rights organization has seemed to fade in recent years and lose some of its sharp edge. It now is going through an embarrassingly public power struggle between its chairman, board and executive director.
Yet it survives and even thrives, as the Greensboro branch also shows. The Greensboro chapter is registering college students to vote, challenging city and county election procedures, quietly negotiating for more jobs for blacks and exemplifying the contention of civil rights leaders that their movement has changed its packaging but not gone out of business.
"There was a time when we were concerned about barriers that dealt with dignity . . . and you could not be concerned about welfare or economic empowerment," said Vernon E. Jordan, former president of the National Urban League. "What we did in the '60s was to tear down the wall. What we're doing now is dealing with the debris, the rubbish and the trash.
"It does not make much sense," Jordan said, "to have the right to check into the hotel if you don't have the economic wherewithal to check out."
"Back in those days," Battle recalled of the 1960s, "racism was not as subtle in the South as it is now. You didn't have to strategize and study and do the kind of homework on your cases that you have to do now. Now you have to prove everything, you have to have it documented."
If the Greensboro branch is typical, the NAACP is far from dead. The local chapter's most recent success occurred earlier this year. In the culmination of an 18-year battle, it convinced the City Council to abandon a longstanding at-large election system and institute a ward-based plan that virtually guarantees at least two black seats on the seven-member panel.
Fresh from that victory, it joined with an old ally, the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and asked a federal court to order a similar system in elections for the Guilford County Board, which has had one black member in the last two centuries.
The Greensboro chapter is almost totally in accord with the thrust of the national program, which many contend has been drained of energy by the six-year power struggle between board Chairman Margaret Bush Wilson and executive director Benjamin L. Hooks.
Last week the board stripped Wilson of most of her powers and asked her to resign after repudiating her May 18 eight-day suspension of Hooks for allegedly being uncooperative, insubordinate and inexcusably rude.
Over the last two years, the NAACP has concentrated much of its effort in two areas--voter registration and political participation, and an economic program known as Fair Share, which tries to negotiate more jobs, promotions, directorships and contracts for blacks.
So far agreements have been negotiated with 14 firms and associations in various parts of the country, including pacts signed earlier this year with the Mississippi Power and Light Co. and the Georgia Power Co.
NAACP officials estimate that blacks will receive a total of more than $10 million in jobs and other economic benefits over the next three years as a result of the agreements.
In the area of voter registration, the organization lays claim to direct or indirect registration of more than 1.5 million persons throughout the country since 1979. It recently launched a "Breadbox-Ballotbox Voter Drive" to register people standing in line for handouts of surplus cheese. In one six-hour session in Detroit, it registered 1,500, an official said.
Like many other civil rights organizations, the NAACP feels that current White House policies are bringing to its cause more recruits and donations than at any time since the turbulent days of the 1960s.
"The best catalyst we've got in the United States right now is an instrument known as Ronald Reagan," said Mississippi state NAACP President Aaron Henry of Clarksdale. "He ought to be considered for the Spingarn medal the organization's highest award because he is really bringing the black community back together."
Hooks said last week that the organization's membership, once estimated at 450,000, is now about two-thirds that but is increasing. Its budget of $7.4 million is well above last year's $6.1 million.
But there is still uncertainty in NAACP ranks over what direction the organization should take following the landmark accomplishments of the 1960s--such legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965--and the emergence of politics and economics at the top of the black agenda.
In this regard, the NAACP has been less service-oriented than the much smaller Urban League, which enjoys a budget of $125 million and more than 3,500 employes. The Fair Share program did not emerge until 1981, long after the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Chicago-based Operation PUSH began similar efforts.
Some in the organization blame the feud between Wilson and Hooks for the national organization's sluggishness, and there is disagreement among NAACP officials over where it goes from here.
But Washington lawyer Joseph L. Rauh, a former board member, said that uncertainty about direction is understandable. So are feuds over leadership.
"The problems are much more difficult today, and this has resulted in frustration," Rauh said. "What you've got today is the inability of anyone to cope with the economic deprivation of blacks, and as a result you get the frustrations."