The future of the NAACP [Commentary]

While Cornell William Brooks may be a surprising choice to lead the NAACP, it takes neither an Einstein nor a soothsayer to know what challenges lie ahead for the clergyman-lawyer little known beyond his social justice network in New Jersey.

Three words: money, membership, mission.

The NAACP, headquartered in Baltimore, has always had difficulty financing the cause of freedom. The new chief has been tasked with increasing both fundraising and membership by 20 percent — a tall order for an organization that too many people look to only in times of personal peril.

"They aren't the most relevant, but they've got the most potential," Jeff Johnson says of the organization for which he was once national youth director. Through its 2,300 branches, the nation's oldest civil rights organization has "a network of volunteers around the country who are waiting to be trained, who are waiting to be directed," Mr. Johnson said.

While the institutional challenges remain the same, so, too, does the social justice agenda. Indeed, upon his selection, Mr. Brooks said, "In our fight to ensure voting rights, economic equality, health equity and ending racial discrimination for all people, there is indeed much work to be done."

That work is pretty much what the NAACP took on at its founding by a group of progressive whites and blacks in 1909. The mission then was "to promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law."

In a 1912 visit, W. E. DuBois, the scholar and founding member of the NAACP, told Baltimoreans: "While many are disposed to assert that the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is mainly negative, in that we protest against discriminations against the race, we are trying to do a most needed work in aiding promising young men and women of the race."

Starting in the 1930s, that work propelled Lillie Carroll Jackson, known in her day as "the mother of the civil rights movement" in Baltimore. Langston Hughes would later write of her: "She lives, works, eats and sleeps NAACP. It is her heart and soul." Today marks the 125th anniversary of her birth.

With the likes of Enolia P. McMillan, a future national NAACP president, Jackson made Baltimore one of the strongest chapters, answering the call of Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall's mentor, to "sue Jim Crow out of Maryland." Her daughter Juanita Jackson Mitchell became a civil rights lawyer and NAACP activist; her son-in-law Clarence Mitchell Jr., was the NAACP's chief lobbyist. Her fingerprints were on everything from opening the doors to the University of Maryland's law school to opening jobs and housing, from organizing young people's protests to steering Baltimore's implementation of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that 60 years ago ordered an end to legally-mandated segregated schools.

Fast forward to 2014, when schools are no longer segregated by law, but are certainly not truly integrated racially and economically. No longer are black bodies hanging from trees, but in terms of how justice is meted out, there are, in the words of Attorney General Eric Holder, "systemic and unwarranted racial disparities."

Joblessness, inferior housing, inadequate health care — these are some of the ills dogging far too many people of color. From small chapters such as one in my hometown, Conyers, Ga., with 50 members, to larger ones such as Baltimore's, women and men, on their own time, are helping their neighbors with mortgage issues, questionable arrests, workplace problems, disciplinary actions in schools, obstacles to voting — all in the name of the NAACP.

The Baltimore chapter, which reached 17,000 members in its heyday, now has about 2,000 members. At the city level, the challenge is the same as it is for Mr. Brooks at the national level: to convince young people and middle-class, not-so-young people that the NAACP is more than an emergency room.

"Racism is still alive and well, but it's just done differently," said Tessa Hill-Alston, president of the local chapter. She reminds Baltimoreans that many of them would not be where they are "if it wasn't for the good work of the NAACP of yesterday."

The NAACP must once again heed Houston's charge to "remain on the alert and push the struggle farther with all our might."

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her email is er.shipp@aol.com.


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