By Christina Hoge
Jobs, education, health, housing — the issues driving the NAACP these days look much like the concerns of most Americans, and that’s by design.
As the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People kicked off its 102nd convention last weekend in downtown Los Angeles, the venerable civil rights organization’s policy agenda shows how it has evolved from its decades-long role as a leading fighter against racial inequality to become a staunch advocate for social justice for all minorities.
“They’re doing a much better job by being seen as lobbying for poor, disenfranchised people of all colors,” said Peniel E. Joseph, a Tufts University history professor and author of a book on the civil rights and black power movements.
The strategy has enabled the NAACP to bounce back after a decade in which many charged that the organization had lost its way, becoming irrelevant.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the NAACP was a standard-bearer of the struggle for voting rights, desegregated schools, and equal access to everything from water fountains to bus seats. But by four decades later — with a black president in the White House — the NAACP’s prominence had trickled to a place in history books.
Membership had dipped from a high of 625,000 at the NAACP’s apogee in the 1964, to less than 300,000 by the mid-2000s.
Five out of seven regional headquarters had closed and an old-guard leadership appeared aloof from young people, who were mainly concerned with the dearth of economic opportunity. The organization itself was ailing, operating for five years in the red, after revenues dipped $9 million.
“There was a great sense in the 1990s that the NAACP had become a museum piece,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a Los Angeles-based civil rights activist and columnist. “It was missing in action.”
But the organization has seen a resurgence in recent years, spearheaded by a new president, Benjamin Todd Jealous, in 2008, at age 35 the group’s youngest ever.
Jealous, who had headed a foundation and worked for human rights organization Amnesty International, embarked on a major revitalization campaign by reaching out to young African-Americans and people of varied minority groups, broadening the scope of the organization to end discrimination on all fronts.
“By focusing on the nexus of great civil rights issues and human rights issues that are keeping people of color trapped in poverty, folks have responded,” Jealous said, noting that the recession has resulted in a lot of shared interests among different groups. “It’s much easier to get folks together to build coalitions and break barriers.”
The number of members, donors and a network of online partners who promote the NAACP have surged to 525,000, with the 18 to 25-year-old group the fastest growing segment as the organization has made a point to take up issues affecting younger people, such as college affordability.
The flood of new interest has pushed the organization into the black with a $31 million budget that has been pumped up by donations from foundations and major donors — $4 million in Jealous’ first year — as well as a doubling in the number of small donors to 20,000. By fall, it will have reopened all of the five shuttered regional offices.
“He’s been very energetic,” Joseph said of Jealous.
Its grassroots base, meanwhile, has been boosted by an embrace of the country’s multi-ethnic tapestry. An openly gay black man, Hispanic immigrants, whites, Asians, and Native Americans now serve as chapter presidents across the nation. “As the country becomes more diverse, so does the NAACP,” said Hilary Shelton, senior vice president of advocacy and policy. “We are so excited about that aspect.”
The organization has taken on a menu of group-specific issues ranging from gay rights to the Dream Act, which would enable illegal immigrant students to gain residency after completing college, as well as wider issues related to poverty — joblessness, health care access, criminal justice, quality public schools — that disenfranchised communities tend to share.
“These issues transcend race, but they’re highly concentrated in poor black and Latino communities,” Joseph said.
In some ways, that makes the NAACP’s broader mission harder to tackle because the issues aren’t as visible as overt racism, but become civil rights problems because they disproportionately affect minorities.
“Jim Crow was in your face,” said Hutchinson. “It was much easier to mobilize around that. These areas are harder to put your finger on because discrimination is harder to prove.”
The new stance doesn’t sit well with everyone. Some charge that by expanding its playing field, the NAACP is paying short shrift to its core mission of advocating for the black community, which is beset with problems that still include police brutality and racial profiling.
“The NAACP’s focus is not broad, it’s specific — it’s for black people,” said Boston activist Jamarhl Crawford, who publishes blackstonian.com and is a vocal critic of the new strategy. “The first job is not done. We got a lot of work to do in that regard.”
Veteran NAACP members say the organization’s new push actually reflects its original mission. The group was founded in 1909 by black and Jewish groups and has had white and other ethnic leaders and members in some areas of the country throughout its history.
It has always stood for equal access to jobs, housing and schools, but with different emphases over the years, noted Leon Russell, a 43-year-member who is vice chairman.
For many years, education was about ending school segregation, he said, and now it’s about ensuring poor communities have access to the same quality of education as more affluent ones.
Still, when some 6,000 NAACP members gather over the next week to discuss and debate the organization’s policy agenda for the upcoming year, several issues specific to the black community are priorities — one is the plight of black men, who remained dogged by high rates of incarceration, murder and unemployment.
Jealous said the organization is working to reconcile disparate sentencing laws, such as harsher terms for crack cocaine offenses, which is more prevalent in the black community, compared to powder cocaine.
A shorter-term issue is ensuring African-American voter rights for the 2012 presidential election. A number of states have passed restrictive voting laws that activists say will disenfranchise swaths of black voters, such as requirements to present a photo ID at the polling booth.
Although NAACP’s historic battles are over, Jealous said the organization remains more relevant than ever with an increasingly divisive political climate and growing poverty. “This is a very tense time in our nation’s history,” he said.