I recently read something about Benjamin Jealous, the new president of the NAACP, which makes me think the nearly hundred-year-old civil rights organization may have a future after all. Jealous, 35, assumes the reins at a time when many question the NAACP’s ability to make a difference in an America, which some feel has moved beyond race discrimination.
I joined the NAACP some 25 years ago. In those days, the late Delbert Woods was president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP. He taught me about the branch’s history as one of the organization’s first local branches and about the role South Carolina branches played in the development of the civil rights movement, like how the fight for equality in public education in the state led to the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that laid the groundwork for integrated schools.
For most of the 1980s, I felt the NAACP wavered in its mission. The gains made during the 1960s were lost in the urban blight that had come to the nation’s inner cities. Real estate redlining left black communities lacking in commercial resources, while crime, poverty, and illegal drug trafficking proliferated in areas where opportunities had been promised.
I felt like the NAACP went silent as all of that took place. A lot of lifelong NAACP members I knew no longer participated and became critical of the organization. Local NAACP leadership seemed to falter. Their primary goals seemed to be raising money and glamorizing annual fund-raising banquets.
The Charleston and North Charleston branches seldom coordinate activities even today. Often their annual fund-raisers are scheduled only weeks apart, putting them in direct competition for donations from the same philanthropic sources. When civil rights issues are addressed, the branches don’t support each other. The unspoken feud between the leadership of the two branches is common knowledge.
I think Jealous will bring some unity and viability to the NAACP. I met the young brother a few years ago when I worked for a local black weekly newspaper. He emerged as the executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association before turning 30 and led the organization into the new millennium.
I saw how he took the association’s approximately 200 independent papers and created a cohesive unit that continues to thrive. He can do the same for the NAACP.
Jealous promises to take a fundamental approach to identifying problems and developing strategies that were proven successful by some of the organization’s most notable facilitators — W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Roy Wilkins, and Thurgood Marshall.
I am convinced of Jealous’ success by one action he already has taken — he has said he will not accept money for speaking engagements outside the organization. That is the kind of unselfish commitment I saw in him as a young man.
Ever since former Executive Director Ben Hooks retired in 1977, the NAACP’s leadership has been mired in controversy, ranging from allegations of sexual harassment to the inability of various factions to work within the organization’s structure. Considering what Jealous did with the NNPA, unifying the NAACP should be an easy task.
At the annual Texas NAACP convention, Jealous said the most critical obstacle preventing black America from the full attainment of civil rights and equality was the lack of outrage from black America. Noting the likelihood that Barack Obama will win the presidential election on Nov. 4, Jealous said the condition of black America as a whole and not the advancement of a single African American to the White House will determine whether or not the NAACP still has work ahead of it.
I’m thinking that if black folks can find sufficient outrage, the NAACP has found a leader to help focus it.