When leaders of the NAACP gather this month to formally begin a year-long recognition of 100 years of civil rights work, they’ll be talking as much about the organization’s future as they will be honoring its past.
On dozens of college campuses across the nation, where plenty of groups have taken on justice issues that for decades only the NAACP would touch, it is not uncommon to hear people question whether the NAACP is still relevant. The question is answering itself, however, as all discover there’s still more than enough work to be done and still not enough people to take it on.
“On our campus, we can get people excited, but continuity is a problem,” says Brittney Autry, president of the 45-member NAACP student chapter at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where student activism in the NAACP dates to the mid-1930s. That’s when Howard students marched on Capitol Hill to protest the lynching of Blacks across the South. “Our fight is the same as it was in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Autry. “It’s now more institutionalized and covert, so we have to find new techniques.”
Lynchings by racist, White mobs were the focal point of student protests in the 1930s. Racially segregated public schools, multiple barriers to voting, and segregation in interstate commerce were the focal point of the 1950s and 1960s. NAACP student chapters, most working in support of adult branches, played major roles in mobilizing students to protest all those social policies in their communities.
Claiming 23,000 members in its Youth and College Division, the NAACP says it has 300 college chapters including some, like Howard’s, that date back to the 1930s. Campus chapters are all over the country, at historically Black colleges and universities, at historically White institutions, public and private schools, both rural and urban.
Today, the Howard student chapter, and others like it, finds itself fighting new versions of old problems and, increasingly so since the 1960s, sharing the platform with a variety of groups, including Black Student Union groups that are more narrowly focused in their activities and have a heavier social agenda in many cases.
Collectively, they are focusing on disparities in the criminal justice system, from the Jena Six high school case in Louisiana, in which racial tensions led to a schoolyard fight and six Black teenagers were charged, to national federal sentencing guidelines that have put thousands of people of color behind bars for decades for illegal drug offenses. They are engaged in year-round voter registration drives and cite youth mobilization in last year’s elections as a good reason to register and vote.
These groups are fighting noose hangings on campuses, use of the N-word by rappers and comedians, White fraternity “black face” parties and engaging in HIV health education work in their communities. “AIDS is the No. 1 killer of young [Black women] in [Washington,] D.C.,” notes Autry, a senior majoring in psychology.
“There’s no absence of issues on these campuses,” says Julian Bond, chairman of the national board of the NAACP. “When Black people are in trouble, they don’t call Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan, they call the NAACP.” Bond says campus chapters were less activist on their own during his college years at Morehouse College in Atlanta in the mid-1950s. Campus chapters were basically supportive of the adult chapters, he says, adding jokingly that the only marching done in his college days was on the president’s house in protest of the quality of cafeteria food.
Roger Wilkins, who is a noted historian and journalist, offers another reason for the ’50s generation being called “the silent generation.” The domestic hysteria created by the communist witch-hunts of the late Sen. Joe Mc- Carthy chilled First Amendment rights in those years. It made people “careful about what organizations you joined and how you spoke out,” says Wilkins, who was NAACP campus chapter president at the University of Michigan in the early 1950s. Wilkins recalls how citizens’ lives, families and careers were ruined by McCarthy’s campaign, characterizing it as “lethal.” Because of that, “We were the hunkered down generation,” he says.
The 1960s marked a higher profile and role for campus NAACP chapters, one that is different in style today, but just as passionate. Campus chapters are the galvanizing force in many efforts. For other issues, they are the well-respected name in the crowd, giving credibility to a cause or battle.
At California State University, Northridge, in Southern California, the NAACP campus chapter took the initiative in bringing the Jena Six issue to the fore. Then, it “collaborated” with other campus groups to rally support for protests against the arrests of the six high school students.
Partnerships were the theme of the day as coalitions formed to protest state budget cuts for higher education and, separately, Proposition 8, the ballot initiative to change the California Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and woman.
“Everybody wants to fight for and be an advocate for equality,” says CSUN campus chapter president Samantha Wauls, a junior majoring in Pan African studies.
To keep focus on issues dear to the roots of the NAACP, campus chapters offer fellow students a steady diet of seminars and education forums. At the height of the Jena Six controversy, the campus chapter at historically White Georgia Southern University held a forum and “got good turnout,” says campus chapter president Jarriell Denson, a senior economics major. “There’s nothing actually good about the Jena Six case,” says Denson. “But, it got people to talk.”
Chapters hold forums on Black history, voting, minority presence and participation in the media, employment and other issues facing their communities.
Financial support these chapters get from their schools for their activities runs the gamut. At Howard, for example, the chapter gets financial support as a student organization as do other campus organizations. At Georgia Southern, on the other hand, the school does not give general support to any campus organizations. There is a program fund for all organizations and the NAACP campus chapter can get funds for specific programs as can any other campus organization, until funds are exhausted.
Racially Diverse Support
As diverse as the issues being tackled by today’s campus chapters are the ranks of those doing the work.
Georgia Southern’s 35-member chapter includes 10 Whites and a Hispanic student. The CSUN chapter’s membership includes students of Spanish and Middle Eastern descent. At The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., a few years ago the campus chapter president was White.
That racial diversity in the organization “works pretty well and gives credence to the organization,” says William Jawando, organizer of the Catholic University of America chapter. “It functions best when it’s seen as a social movement for all persons,” says Jawando, a 26-year-old attorney who is legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Jawando is part of a small, but growing cadre of young NAACP activists who may well hold the key to the NAACP’s next century in their hands. After graduating from law school and starting his career, he’s gotten involved with the Washington branch of the NAACP. He hasn’t “aged out,” the term used to describe the dropout factor in NAACP participation among people in their mid-20s to late 30s. He says he’s in it for the long haul.
“If you look around at all these disparities, of course we’re relevant,” Jawando says, in response to a question about the NAACP’s relevance in today’s society. For sure, the N double A, as it is casually called, feels a bit old and acts a bit old, he says. “My charge is [to] try to freshen what some people see lacking. It’s the difference between telling some people to vote because someone died for them versus ‘hey, your tuition is going up … ’ We need to change our tactics.”
Autry and others share Jawando’s sense of needing to spruce up a bit. Still, they say they chose the NAACP over other groups because of its rich history in the battle for social justice and organized structure. As for being a social activist, rather than a pedestrian, Autry puts it this way: “I got involved because I wanted to impact change in my community. I couldn’t stand by and do nothing.
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