Truthfully, it is an assertion many activists have whispered for a lengthy period; less tactful persons have boisterously asserted it in the public arena. The issue I am alluding to is a daunting query of has the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) outlived its utility. Created in 1909, the NAACP was formed out of a desperate desire by a collective of predominantly white moralists who were repulsed at the 1908 Springfield (Illinois) Race Riot and what the event meant for their beloved nation. Although rarely discussed, there were very few African-Americans involved in the NAACP’s creation, W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett were the most notable of that initial cadre.
For much of its existence, the NAACP has served as legal arm for the historic battles to subdue institutionalized racism in an America that was slow to change. It was the NAACP that brought the action to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., contention that the struggle for Civil Rights in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” would be a protracted battle fought in both American courts and the hearts of its citizenry.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., warned whites that their post-Voting Rights Act celebrations communicated an erroneous belief that America had conquered race. King vehemently dissented against such naïveté and advised that the solution to persisting racial inequities lay in the completion of two increasingly difficult stages. According to Dr. King, the initial step toward racial equality, the securing of legal equality, was achieved with the signing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. King posited that the next stage, the exercise of justice, would be much more challenging. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reflected,
[W]ith Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications. For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade — the first phase — had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination. The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away,
When Negroes looked for the second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared. Negroes felt cheated, especially in the North, while many whites felt that the negroes had gained so much it was virtually impudent and greedy to ask for more so soon.
There is no doubt that the NAACP has spent the bulk of its time engaged in the initial stage, securing equality on the law books of America, and scant time addressing the more difficult process of exercising equality. It is in that gap between legislative equality and the exercise of equality that the vast majority of angst and discord within black America remains. Put simply; it is this cavernous hole that facilitated the abandonment of traditional Civil Rights courtroom activism for direct expressions of resistance such as that provided by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committees (SNCC).
In time, court cases led by figures such as Charles Hamilton Houston, Constance Baker Motley, and Thurgood Marshall were replaced by physical confrontations with Jim Crow and strategies such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’s vaunted “Panther Patrols.” In time, it became evident that the NAACP’s propensity to shy away from such direct battle facilitated their marginalization in the minds of the common man and woman. In many ways, the NAACP was never an organization of the people; it represented their interests. However, it did not have many opportunities for those outside of Du Bois Talented-Tenth to participate in a significant way.
In the new millennium, the NAACP’s disassociation from the masses of black America has become even more pronounced. The emergence of grassroots activist groups such as Black Lives Matter has shined a spotlight upon this occurrence. For decades, the NAACP has rested on its well-deserved laurels as the most iconic organization in the nation. If nothing else, the NAACP’s reputation preceded it. Historically speaking, NAACP leaders were never forced to compare themselves to what many considered lesser groups such as SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Mississippi Freedom and Democratic Party, the Black Panther Party, or the Black Liberation Army.
The venerable NAACP existed above much of the dirty work that served as staples for lesser groups. Outgoing NAACP President Cornel William Brooks articulated as much when he related that “We (NAACP) do not crawl on the ground! We do not fall prostrate before problems! We are not relegated to the dust! We are not insects! We are an American iconic institution! We are the NAACP!” Ironically, it is Brooks, the figure who has worked tirelessly for the past three years to reposition the organization that sits at the center of the NAACP’s push for increased relevancy via a “transformational retooling” aimed at attracting the attention and loyalties of an emerging cadre of young activists. Inexplicably, the NAACP’s current leader is being jettisoned out the door as this initiative expands.
The deposed President articulated the primary problem facing the NAACP when he remarked that the organization “has fallen behind the times…it has been less effective in countering racism today, while Black Lives Matter and other protest movements have exploded.”
Although difficult to comprehend, it appears that the NAACP’s “transformational retooling” is born out of a jealousy/envy of grassroots activist groups such as Black Lives Matter that have managed via social media savvy, not necessarily an activist agenda or political accomplishments, to garner both the loyalties of a new generation of activists and the attention of national media outlets.
Instead of remaining in their traditional lane, NAACP leaders are apparently seeking to leave their throne of dignity and descend into the horde of the unclean masses via “an organization-wide refresh” to address the “audacious challenges…(presented by) today’s volatile political, media and social climates.”
The historical record shows that the NAACP’s most significant utility has been when they entered courtrooms and spoke for those who had been intimidated into silence by institutional racism. I fear that in its rush to recreate itself as young, hip, and cutting-edge activist group that the NAACP is vacating a much-needed role in the movement in exchange for fleeting moments of fame. I wish that someone would tell the NAACP board that there is much danger hidden in their desperate attempt to attract a new generation of activists. This courting of young activists makes the NAACP analogous to a retiree appearing at a club for twentysomething’s with wearing a Kangol and a litany of gold chains hanging around their neck attempting to fit in using eighties lingo such as “chill, dope, and chick.”
I am most certainly not saying that the NAACP should shutter its doors; however, there is little doubt that this movement to become something that it never was in a new millennium that it has never seen, is not only bizarre, but also dumb. If provided the opportunity, I would plead with the NAACP to not refashion itself as a rival to emerging activist groups such as Black Lives Matter. Such action not only betrays the NAACP’s historic role, but also leaves a cavernous hole in the continuing struggle for racial equality. Bolstered by a century of activist experience, the NAACP should be seeking to serve these emerging groups in an advisory capacity, not making moves to dissipate the power that has been mobilized in a technological world that old-guard Civil Rights groups will never be able to understand or keep up with.
Dr. James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood, Race and Culture, 2017