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At 100, NAACP crafting new identity

Conference is time to celebrate, redefine mission

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post / July 13, 2009
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NEW YORK - In the beginning, the purpose of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization was well defined: to achieve equal justice under the law for black Americans.

One hundred years later, as 5,000 members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gather here to set an agenda, little is so clear-cut.

The NAACP faces a slew of questions: Has the election of the first black US president marked the end of the civil rights agenda? Must an organization traditionally focused on the plight of black Americans expand its mission? What should a black civil rights organization do in 2009?

The NAACP has long been a prism through which to view the puzzle of race in America, and the current uncertainty promises to be a presence at its weeklong centennial convention, which will include addresses from President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.

The association’s president, Benjamin Todd Jealous - who at 36 is the youngest person to ever lead the organization - acknowledges the pride his membership takes in hosting the first black president and attorney general but argues that their ascension does not negate the need for the NAACP. In many ways, the convention this week sets out to prove that point.

Jealous began the year by laying out his vision for an organization focused not solely on old civil rights battles, but on human rights as well. He envisions an NAACP primarily serving a black constituency but with a broader outlook.

“We are a very black organization, but we are not a black organization. There is a difference. It’s the difference between being able to play the black position on the field and being able to play any position,’’ Jealous said. “We are from our origin a multiracial, multiethnic human rights organization.’’

In his approach is a subtle nod to the need to respond to modern times by recalibrating the NAACP’s approach to issues of race. The association, which claims more than half a million members, will host conversations on the impact of racial disparities in the criminal justice system on African American and Latino communities and on the meaning of recent Supreme Court decisions as they relate to affirmative action. It will also host a diverse panel of youth activists who are working with people of various races, ethnicities and backgrounds to deal with national and global human rights issues.

“We have succeeded in many ways - Obama and Holder are examples of that - but we are very much focused on the work ahead,’’ Jealous said over the weekend at the convention’s opening news conference, standing with of a Latino rights group to show solidarity in their support for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

The presence of a black man in the nation’s highest office has become a stand-in for the 1960s civil rights movement’s ideal of fuller social integration of black and white communities, according to David Garrow, a civil rights historian and author of the book “Bearing the Cross,’’ a biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Core concerns of the ’60s, such as geographic integration and redistribution of income, are no longer central to the discussion, Garrow said.

Young activists are defining their work in different terms. Basheer Jones, a 24-year-old talk radio host in Cleveland, is not a member of the NAACP; he says the organization has been out of touch. But he is attending his first NAACP convention - at the invitation of an older member - and calls himself a community activist, not a civil rights activist.

“This new generation of leadership has to be different. We have to have the same courage and enthusiasm, but we have to unite a little bit more despite your religion, your socioeconomic status,’’ said Jones.

Rinku Sen, an Oakland activist who heads the Applied Research Center, a think tank on race, said the landscape for a civil rights agenda has shifted. She sees the NAACP’s decision to broaden its mission beyond the black community as timely but probably difficult.

“There are a lot of new players in the game as immigrant communities have matured,’’ Sen said. “ . . . There are real differences in how groups pushing for racial justice experience the problem. African Americans, Latino immigrants, and South Asian Muslims don’t fit in exactly the same place in the hierarchy.’’

Darren Hutchinson, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, said the NAACP may face an even larger problem moving into its second century.

Americans are dealing with “racial exhaustion,’’ he said. “A lot of people are tired of talking about race. They have to find a new language for dealing with these issues.’’

Jewel Shears, who joined the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP last week, said the weariness some have about the subject inspired her activism. “Race is something that we have to keep talking about with all of the disparities that exist,’’ she said. “We have to do our due diligence to help the cause.’’