Meeting for a week in Los Angeles for its 102nd national convention, the NAACP marched in solidarity with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, heard rousing oratory from Chairman Roslyn Brock and President Benjamin Todd Jealous, took a history lesson on the meaning of the current battle from North Carolina State President Rev. William Barber, and met in dozens of workshops that covered topics from “Why we must overcome homophobia” to “Environmental and climate justice” to “Reviving the prophetic relationship with communities of faith.”
“The state of the NAACP is strong,” Jealous told a plenary session. He cited three years in a row of growing membership numbers, an end to fiscal crisis at the national headquarters, and an on-line activist base–“starting primarily with young people”–of over 510,000. Close to 2,500 voting delegates and alternates registered for and attended the convention, but approximately 10,000 walked through the doors at one time or another, according to an NAACP spokesperson. Many went to the NAACP’s commerce expo, and the annual Freedom Fund dinner was packed wall to wall. This writer sat at Table 127, and the numbers went up from there.
Yes, the generation that led the black freedom movement in the 1950s and 1960s was present, represented in part by Ambassador Andrew Young’s presentation of the Spingarn Award to Attorney Frankie Muse Freeman. Young noted the contribution of women to that fight, despite the fact that they were often kept off the speakers’ platforms. Ms. Freeman, was part of the NAACP legal team that filed a desegregation lawsuit against the St. Louis Board of Education in 1949, and she was the lead attorney in other landmark cases. She later became the first black woman on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
The NAACP is not simply an organization of octogenarians, however. The youth and college divisions have been growing geometrically, and a new generation of leaders under 45 years of age has emerged–among them Chairman Brock, President Jealous, and Mississippi State President Derrick Johnson. Neither the leadership nor the grass roots membership shied away from in-depth discussions of the challenges Americans face in the 21st century. To name a few: a widespread as well as concentrated attack on voting rights that narrows the pool of black and brown registered voters; the disproportionate and unjust incarceration of black men, and the education gap that effectively freezes young black people out of regular employment.
Attendees each had their favorite part of this multi-sided convention. A number liked the “Gospel Extravaganza” the best. Others liked the continuing legal education seminars, or the regional meetings, or the focus on health or labor. To this writer, the most exceptional part of the week came with the discussion of strategic orientation opened up by President Jealous.
“History is running in both directions at once,” he said. He noted the gains of the past and named several new breakthroughs in the electoral arena, including “breaking the color line at the White House.” At the same time, he said, citing his grandmother, “our people got what they fought for, but we lost what we had.” Jealous said there were two tasks confronting the NAACP: “Protecting the blessings of the past that are under attack….and pressing forward to the next frontier.”
His was a remarkable assessment, reflecting an understanding that past gains had to be protected, and by more than simply pushing ahead. In this regard, Jealous’ focal point was the right to vote, “against which all other rights are leveraged,” he said. “Nothing is more in important than protecting and extending the right to vote.” He further argued that we were facing “the greatest roll-back in voting rights since 1896.”
There were three lines of attack he enumerated: 1) Voter ID laws, which he likened to a new poll tax, because you had to pay money to buy an ID before you can vote, 2) Registration ID, which makes registration more difficult and complex. Both were “like Jim Crow,” Jealous said. Number 3) Ex-felon disenfranchisement laws, which “are Jim Crow.” Indeed, the president of the NAACP made it clear, “Jim Crow is still alive in American ballot boxes.”
In this writer’s estimation, Benjamin Todd Jealous said something new and important. The civil rights and human rights movement needs a strategic orientation that both goes on the offensive and defends past gains. Voting is obviously at the top of the list, particularly as 2012 appears on the horizon. It is my view, however, that defending past gains can not simply be done through the ballot box, but must also be fought out in the court of public opinion–particularly when a movement such as the Tea Party appears to be setting the terms of public debate in so many quarters. (Look no further than the way they have hijacked the debate on the government debt.) Tea Party racism and bigotry must be exposed and fought directly and continuously. And the NAACP was the first and most significant organization to take that burden on. The Tea Party acknowledged as much by ginning up a protest rally outside the NAACP’s convention hall.
Now we have returned home from the convention. To quote the aforementioned Ms. Frankie Muse Freeman, quoting Robert Frost: “We have miles to go before we sleep.”
Leonard Zeskind is a Lifetime member of the NAACP.