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NAACP’s Historical Mission at A Crossroads

The recent resignation of Bruce Gordon as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reopened the debate about the future of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.

The conversation on that issue has for years taken several different paths. Historians and general observers cite education, health care and economic empowerment among the top issues for Black America. Most say the NAACP has yet to take a proactive stance on the subjects.

But all agree: The NAACP has a future.

What kind is still uncertain.

“It would be impossible for us not to have an NAACP, and it would be a bad move for us not to,” says R. L’Heureux Lewis, a doctoral candidate in sociology and public policy at the University of Michigan. “The question is how do we make it more relevant to the conditions Black folks face in 2007?”

Gordon, a retired Verizon executive, was an unusual choice for president when he was selected in the summer of 2005. His corporate background differed greatly from that of many of the organizations past presidents, who had been political or religious leaders, or rose to prominence in the civil rights movement.

Gordon, coming from a business background, sought the bottom line. And in several interviews since his resignation, said he tried to figure out what Blacks needed from the group.

“I stepped into the role to understand as best I could the needs of the African-American community and then to propose strategies and policies and programs and practices that could improve conditions for African-Americans. … The things I had in mind were not consistent with what some — unfortunately, too many — on the board had in mind,” Gordon told the Associated Press.

“The NAACP obviously played a major historic role in making sure we had opportunities to vote, go to school and enjoy the same liberties that all Americans should have,” Lewis says. “It has served very much as a watchdog organization, but has not developed an infrastructure to provide African-Americans with things that they need.”

Activist and author Kevin Powell says he believes that had Gordon been able to do as he planned, the organization would not be in a state of “arrested development.” The same goes for the next leader, he says.

“You can’t hire someone and handcuff them,” Powell says. The NAACP board “has got to allow a person to implement his or her vision.”

Powell says the 98-year-old organization should focus more on helping to meet the needs of Blacks, but he says there should be less talking and more action.

“It’s only been about talking,” he says. “Everyone can do that. All you need is a microphone.”

According to Dr. David Bositis, a senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the group’s situation has been far worse than it is now.

“You have to remember that the NAACP is a membership organization with thousands and thousands of chapters. And the things they do happen all over the country,” he says. “The national [leadership] is not the NAACP. That’s just the national part of the NAACP. The organization really runs on the local chapters all over the country.”

Bositis says that although there may be problems within the group’s national leadership, it hasn’t affected local chapters’ ability to provide services across the country.

“When police brutality is a problem, people don’t go running to the Urban League,” he says. “There’s really no other organization that deals with the kind of issues the NAACP deals with. In terms of campaigning against discrimination, the NAACP still plays a big role.

“And until racism is less of a problem than it is now — and it’s still a significant problem — there’s going to be a need for the NAACP,” he says.

–Marlon A. Walker


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