By Russell Contreras
The NAACP’s newly revived Worcester chapter elected a 28-year-old openly gay black man as its president this month. In New Jersey, a branch of the organization outside Atlantic City chose a Honduran immigrant to lead it last year. And in Mississippi, the Jackson State University chapter recently turned to a 30-something white man
Founded more than a century ago to promote black equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is seeing remarkable diversity in its leadership ranks — the result of an aggressive effort over the past four or five years to boost NAACP membership and broaden the civil rights organization’s agenda to confront prejudice in its many forms.
“This is the new NAACP,” said Clark University political science professor Ravi Perry, the new chapter president in Worcester. “This is a human rights organization, and we have an obligation to fight discrimination at all levels.”
NAACP branches have been recruiting gays, immigrants and young people who grew up in a world far removed from the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed school segregation. Now, leadership positions that were once held only by blacks are being filled by members of other racial or ethnic groups.
The group does not keep track of numbers, but in recent years NAACP chapters in New Jersey, Connecticut and Georgia have elected Hispanics as president. A white man was picked to lead the chapter in Aiken, S.C. And two years ago, NAACP members in Hamtramck, Mich., a Detroit suburb, selected a Bangladeshi American to revive their long-dormant chapter.
“Some people mentioned that it wouldn’t be possible for me to be president,” said Victor Diaz, 32, a Dominican American who ran against an incumbent and was elected president of the Waterbury, Conn., branch in November. “But when I ran, I won 3 to 1.”
The push for diversity troubles some members of the NAACP’s old guard, who worry that problems in the black community may get short shrift. But some social scientists say the new diversity is merely a return to the group’s roots as a biracial organization.
In 1964, the NAACP’s membership peaked at 625,000 paid members. By the middle of the past decade, that had dropped to just under 300,000. Now it has reversed course and climbed to more than 525,000, in large part because of an increase in young members, group officials say. The NAACP said it does not keep track of the organization’s racial and ethnic breakdown.
Stefanie Brown, the NAACP’s 30-year-old national field director, said the under-25 crowd is the organization’s fastest-growing age group. In fact, the NAACP has slots on its 60-plus member board of directors reserved for people under 25. In addition, Brown said, young professionals under 40 are taking leadership roles — something that hadn’t happened until recently.
Some in the group say the diversity push weakens the NAACP’s identity. Jamarhl Crawford, editor of the Blackstonian, a Boston website that covers the city’s black population, said he fears it could “water down” the focus on problems in the black community.
“I think there’s going to be some loss there in terms of actual activism, actual protest” on behalf of blacks, said Crawford, a 40-year-old member of the NAACP’s Boston branch.
The diversity push was started a few years ago under then-NAACP chairman Julian Bond. Later, Benjamin Todd Jealous, who in 2008 became the group’s youngest leader at age 35, ramped up the effort and also urged the organization to take up gay rights.
“At our core, we want to end discrimination and have equality for all people,” Brown said.
In a reflection of how it has broadened its agenda, the NAACP came out against California’s Proposition 8, the ballot measure banning gay marriage. Last year, it spoke out against Arizona’s anti-immigration law. It also strongly supported the federal DREAM Act, a proposal to give illegal immigrant students a pathway to citizenship through college or military service.
Perry, the openly gay chapter president, said: “I’m just one example of younger individuals who find a home in the NAACP for issues that they might represent.”
Patricia Sullivan, a history professor at the University of South Carolina and author of “Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement,” called the new push for diversity thrilling and said: “It’s really reflecting what the NAACP has represented historically and what its vision has been.”
Tatcho Mindiola, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston, said that while some Hispanics were NAACP members during the civil right years, their election to leadership roles is a new phenomenon. Mindiola said the NAACP has won over some Hispanics because of recent positions it has taken on issues important to Latinos.
“The group has shown it is fighting for civil rights for all minorities,” said David Alcantara, 52, president of the Pleasantville-Mainland chapter in New Jersey. “And it’s time that all minorities support the NAACP.”