A recent article in The Root written by Jeff Johnson made a publicly scathing criticism of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Johnson’s column, pejoratively titled “An Open Letter to Those Who Still Believe in the NAACP” is a foolish and bewildering attack on one of the largest and longest lasting civil rights organizations in the world. It renders the NAACP painfully vulnerable to its detractors by highlighting the pitfalls of its executive leadership and ignoring the devoted grassroots foundations that have consistently delivered in the name of social justice.
First, let me remind my young brother that the NAACP is responsible for most of his career success by knocking down the racial barriers that have allowed him to be a young African-American professional. Additionally, his ascent to the national spotlight is primarily due to his employment with the NAACP.
Mr. Johnson’s letter is an injustice to the NAACP’s legacy and a punch in the gut to the hard-working men and women who work on the front lines of the organization today. His public rebuke feeds into the criticisms that enemies of our people use to tear down our march toward social justice, and it ignores the success and positive change NAACP members have achieved in recent years.
It is evident throughout his written piece that Johnson’s issues with the NAACP stem from his problems with its leadership structure and not with the current functionality of the organization. In it, he offers his own opinions on how he thinks the organization should be run and details what he believes has been widespread failure on behalf of the organization’s leaders. Now, I have heard Johnson was rebuffed by certain NAACP board members when he floated his own name to be CEO of the organization; however, I cannot speak to Mr. Johnson’s motivations for airing his private grievances with the NAACP in public—only he can answer that question. What I can ask is: What good comes from this?
To be fair, there are some warranted critiques of the organization’s executive committee. But no corporation or entity with the size and stature of the NAACP will ever be perfect. If we were able to sit in on corporate boardrooms or shareholder meetings around the nation I have no doubt we would observe countless power struggles and nefarious bickering, but it doesn’t mean those corporations are destined for failure. In fact, I would argue many of them remain highly successful. I recently completed a term on the NAACP national board of directors myself, and I am well aware of the disputes that occur on that level. But to push issues that could and should be resolved in private into the national spotlight is a mistake on Johnson’s part. He should know better.
When I was a member of the NAACP national board of directors, there were several moments when I questioned or flat-out disagreed with certain decisions by the board and other leaders. Sixty-four members with 64 differing opinions on how to run an organization are bound to have disagreements, and there were many times when emotions ran high. However, even in my deepest moments of frustration, I never questioned the resiliency of the NAACP, and I never thought it was a good idea to use my national profile to make a point or get what I want. I was taught, and taught my children, that disputes among family are best settled privately. I believe the same applies in this situation. As a board member, I spoke at dozens of local chapters around the country, using my persona to generate excitement within local branches and grow their membership numbers. The overwhelming majority of other board members was just as committed.
The irony of Jeff Johnson’s open letter is that he ultimately speaks of the great job the members and branches are doing to address the issues affecting those local communities. I personally know how successful the organization has been, having participated in a march to honor Kenneth Walker, who was killed by police officers while unarmed, Troy Davis’ execution protest and the Jena Six rally. Each of these NAACP-led movements has effectively organized African Americans across the country and spurred constructive discussion and strong activism at a grassroots level.
The NAACP has always been an organization that operates from the bottom up, and I believe this model continues to function well. Although the board plays an important role in guiding the organization, much of its strong legacy has been built by passionate members across the country. Having spent a large portion of his youth and career within the organization, Johnson should realize this.
Each of my children has been active within the NAACP, and my son Greg served as the president of the NAACP Los Angeles Youth Council. I watched firsthand as he, his colleagues and chapter adviser worked together to address issues affecting minorities in greater Los Angeles. These are the stories that make the NAACP great, and expanding this level of grassroots activism is how we can improve the organization. It is an insult to those who fight back against racism, and inequality, block by block and branch by branch, to suggest their association and fight for justice will fail because of the national board politics that Johnson has injected himself into.
No good can come of Mr. Johnson’s letter. Enemies of equality and social justice must be ecstatic at his accusations of dysfunction and predicted demise of the NAACP. He has put the NAACP’s image in jeopardy and exposed the organization to attacks from others about its leadership and current standing as the nation’s premiere civil rights and social justice organization—claims that can be easily discredited with a thorough review of NAACP chapters nationwide. Unfortunately, nonprofit fundraising can be fickle, and it is my fear that public accusations like Johnson’s give corporate donors and foundations ample reasons to end their giving. I certainly hope I’m wrong, but the thought alone is dangerous enough.
The NAACP has a membership of more than 400,000 nationally, and Johnson should be focused on growing this number by doing more outreach with local chapters to increase membership numbers and the NAACP’s grassroots activism. He should not be engaging in organizational infighting that could be detrimental to the NAACP’s image. I applaud Mr. Johnson for his work in the past and all he has done for the NAACP, but his open letter was wrong about the organization’s future, and I sincerely hope he re-evaluates his approach to leadership at the organization.
Judge Greg Mathis is a lifetime NAACP member and former member of the NAACP board. A retired Michigan District Court judge, Judge Mathis presides over court in a syndicated television program, Judge Mathis.
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