Roslyn M. Brock is chairman of the board for the NAACP and no fan of the Tea Party. But at a town hall meeting at Howard University this week, she gave them some props.

“They took our playbook,” she said, “went door to door and educated their constituents.”

The Tea Partiers didn’t get caught up in hope and change advanced by President Obama that they didn’t believe in. Wrongheaded as they may be, they worked on their own game.

Now, they’re a force to be reckoned with.

As the stalwarts of civil rights organizations gather this week in Washington for the Congressional Black Caucus, I hope participants spend not a moment ranting about the Tea Party. The time would be better spent coming up with a new plan to ramp up their own game.

At parties, barbecues and on the streets, there’s no shortage of people willing to tell you how racist, ignorant and bad the Tea Party is for America. But I ain’t mad at the Tea Party.

They have inspired rallies large and small, mobilizing some folks who felt like the political establishment was ignoring them.

They changed the debate on spending and thumbed their noses at deals that didn’t suit their fancy.

What can we learn from them? That debates can change.

Remember the most recent bailouts on Wall Street, when we were told that some institutions are too big, too important to fail?

If that’s the case, then maybe a modern civil rights movement can change the debate and add public schools to that list. And not just by increased standardized testing. The failure that goes on inside those school walls has an impact on everyone in the nation.

At the Howard forum, sponsored by the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., there was plenty of handwringing about whether President Obama’s jobs proposal goes far enough. Black Caucus members, of late, have been publicly chastising the president to do more specifically for the black community, which has been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn.

But Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund and an Obama supporter, said there is a larger issue in the black community. The jobs being created now, Lomax said, are more high-tech. And far too many students are not getting a high school education, let alone heading to college prepared to learn and someday land those high-tech jobs.

“Young people who cannot read and cannot compute cannot find work,” he said.

What was heartening about the wide ranging discussion about education, prison reform, renewable energy, health care and a variety of other topics is that there was little lament among the assembled leaders. Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund exhorted the hundreds in the crowd to go back to their communities and “cause a ruckus” for things that matter.

Brock, of the NAACP, issued a similar call.

“We can’t depend on anybody to do anything for us that we are not prepared to do for ourselves,” she said.

Hard fought rights and economic policies are being eroded daily in state legislatures and in Congress. If President Obama wants many of the folks who helped him get elected to stand with him in this fight, there are expectations, Brock said: “We’ve got to know that our president has our back as well.”

She said she worries when she hears from people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder that perhaps they might be better off if there is no second term for President Obama.

It’s up to leaders like her, and the White House, to convince them otherwise.

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