Crisis on the Color Line

After 100 years of 'pleading our own cause,' is the NAACP equal to the task ahead?

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Black Americans have always fought to balance two conversations—one among themselves and one with “everyone else,” says Ben Jealous, current president and CEO of the NAACP. Freedom’s Journal, for instance—the first black paper founded in the United States—boasted a front page that was focused externally, promoting the case against slavery from the perspective of free blacks. The back page (in 1827, there were only two pages) provided instruction to free men newly arrived in the North, about how to survive and prosper in New York City. “The NAACP really has its greatest impact when we do both things well,” Jealous adds.  

Jealous praised the journal as a “master of creating public conversation,” which made “the pain felt by African Americans—whether the issue was lynching, Jim Crow laws, discrimination in the corporate sector, an unlevel political playing field—felt by the entire country.” But after 100 years, it has lost the ability to frame and accelerate national debates on race and politics. Perhaps as a result of hyperactive media culture, perhaps as a testament to racial advancement, such debates are taking place without the NAACP. And in an age of unprecedented mobility, the group’s organizational clout is waning as well: Their much-touted, 25,000-person online voter registration drive was dwarfed by the multimillion-voter registration push from within Obama for America, the new media juggernaut that elected the first black president. 

Whichever modern reality is to blame, the NAACP can’t afford to see its most valuable asset—its voice—disappear. It has the tools to change; Jealous, himself a former newspaperman and media executive, has worked to expand the reach of the black press, and says a “robust” conversation on the fate of the magazine is underway.  

In his inaugural address, Obama spoke to a nation still at war and paid homage to the interwoven traditions of black American liberation and colonial American mythology. He cited a “father of our nation”—presumably George Washington—urging early patriots to arms, so that history might say “that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”

Surely, the hyper-literate Obama knew he was citing Paine’s “Crisis.” But he invoked NAACP history as well: The Crisis was named for a poem of the same name by James Russell Lowell, whose final stanza, this winter, seems a clear echo of the message sent by Paine, Washington, Wells, Du Bois and the new president: “New occasions teach new duties … we ourselves must Pilgrims be / Launch our Mayflower and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea.”

Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.