When the NAACP met here for its annual convention in 1954 the black delegates stayed with local families and at the black YMCA for $2 a night. Delegates such as Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins and Ralph Bunche met in local churches and Masonic lodges to discuss their victory in the Brown v. Board of Education case to desegregate American public schools.
This past week, 31 years later, delegates to the 1985 NAACP convention shared a laugh with Texas attorney general Jim Maddox, who joked that if it was 1954, he wouldn't be at the lectern welcoming them but would have been "sent after y'all."
This year more affluent members of the NAACP could be seen at chic Dallas hotels and shopping at Neiman-Marcus. The convention itself was held at this city's Taj Mahal, its modern convention center. The only mention of racism in Dallas was some catty grumbling about room assignments at several hotels.
But if life was easier for black delegates than it was 31 years ago, the mood of triumph that prevailed in 1954 had disappeared. This was a meeting of a graying gang desperate to persevere while under political siege from without and within.
The enemies without, many of the delegates agreed, are conservatives in power in Washington, lashing the NAACP and its leaders as a group "protecting some rather good positions."
The enemies within are young blacks who question the organization's leadership and role in American politics at a time when Jesse Jackson stirs passion and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan attracts more and more alienated blacks.
There is also fraying at the very heart of the organization among the old-guard faithful. Questions about sagging membership remain two years after a nasty power struggle between executive director Benjamin L. Hooks and former chairman of the board Margaret Bush Wilson. And now the NAACP is unable to pay the rent on its headquarters offices in Brooklyn, N.Y. A proposal to move to suburban Baltimore and cut the paid staff from 90 to about 45 has caused an uproar.
Joe E. Madison, national political director of the NAACP, described the NAACP's troubles as typical of problems "facing all civil rights groups in America.
"People, black and white, are not sure what to do about racial problems anymore. There is frustration, some of it directed at an easy target like the NAACP . . . . They wish the whole race thing would go away even as they see things getting worse," Madison said.
In the convention meetings, real passion over racial injustice could still be heard, as could angry condemnations of the Reagan administration's attack on affirmative action and stirring pleas to register black voters and end high-levels of black unemployment.
The modern NAACPers spoke of triumph at having registered a million voters last year and repairing coalitions with Jewish and women's groups. "There is nothing on the civil rights agenda we can achieve without forming coalitions," said Hooks.
The organization's public profile is lower than it has been in the past. Instead of victories like pressing President Truman to desegregate the Armed Forces, the NAACP talks about its "Black Dollar Days," a plan to persuade black consumers to use silver dollars so storeowners can see at day's end how many of their customers are black. The program has had limited success and has invited some cynical criticism.
Another new venture is the Fair Share agreements the group has signed with about 30 major corporations including Kool cigarettes, K mart, Coors and Church's Fried Chicken. The agreements are intended to get those firms to do business with black suppliers and hire blacks.
But even as the true believers convened, the critics were at the door. On the day this convention began, a local black city councilman, Al Lipscomb, was quoted in a local paper saying, "You can call eight or 10 blacks in this city today and ask them what the NAACP is doing in Dallas and you'll get 'Who is that?' or 'N-A-A-what?' "
Walter Williams, a conservative black economist, has directly disparaged the group. In a recent interview he said: "(The NAACP) has a great and noble history but it has outlived its usefulness. In my opinion the civil rights struggle is over and won in the U.S. What we see going on now by the NAACP is not a civil rights struggle . . . . One of the issues they deal with today is the death penalty. Now that's not a civil rights issue. Those people are in jail because they murdered people."
Criticism of this kind has come from white conservatives and a small group of blacks associated with the Reagan White House. The president himself throws daggers.
"Maybe some of those leaders are protecting some rather good positions that they have and they can program them better if they can keep their constituency aggrieved and believing that they have a legitimate complaint," he has said.
Hooks, the group's executive director, has been like a pinball bouncing from critic to critic since 1977 when he succeeded Roy Wilkins. In 1977, Hooks had predicted a renaissance, increasing membership and national influence. Instead, his group is trying to preserve its membership, unable to advise a disdainful president, and hard-pressed for money.
"I don't understand why the days of volunteerism are on the wane," Hooks said. "But very few groups have large memberships anymore. Of all the civil rights organizations, the NAACP has the largest membership about 400,000, including more than 100,000 lifetime members, down from more than 560,000 in the late 60s ."
Hooks' response to the critics varies; he seems most concerned, however, about the hemorrhaging of support from younger blacks, many of whom benefitted from the civil rights victories and hiring pressure that grew out of the NAACP's campaigns. The current generation of blacks has left the NAACP living on a shoestring budget, most of it from corporations and foundations instead of indvidual members. The NAACP has only about $45,000 in the bank according to William F. Gibson, the chairman of the board.
"You know the thing that always tickles me when I have interaction with brilliant, sophisticated young friends," he said, "is they tell me they don't belong to the NAACP and I accept it. Then I ask 'What do you belong to? Do you belong to PUSH, to the Urban League?'
"They don't belong to anything and they haven't started anything," he said. "So I think they're a bunch of naysayers who simply want an excuse."
Young blacks at a Dallas nightclub agreed. "It's like the words to the song," said one who asked not to be quoted by name. "Sex and civil rights and marching may give you thrills but it don't pay your bills -- I need money."
While Hooks worries about the future generations of blacks, both he and Gibson say they feel the NAACP is being pushed from the American mainstream by the success of Reagan-inspired anti-civil rights rhetoric. Part of the change has been the loss of the traditional NAACP access to the president.
In his opening speech to the convention, Hooks was particularly acid in denouncing the few blacks close to Reagan, such as Civil Rights Commission Chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. Hooks said these blacks are "mercenaries" being used by Reagan and "Pollyannas of this administration . . . who lie in the face of history."
But it was Gibson, the chairman of the board, who refuted what he said is the Reaganite attitude that the NAACP is an anachronism, a left-over from the 1960s.
"They are saying that none of the civil rights organizations -- including the NAACP -- any longer serve any useful purpose," he said. "And that we are merely distorting black public opinion to protect our jobs. I say hogwash.
"I wish to God black civil rights leaders unto themselves were that powerful and persuading," he said. "Because for us to control over 90 percent of all black voters in two presidential elections would be the ultimate in political power . . . . They must think black folk are blind, deaf, dumb, and crazy not to see, not to know what's going on. But they say . . . just listen to the great communicator's speeches . . . .
"I say thank you very much for being so kind and good to us," he said with a smile.