CINCINNATI—The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will be 100 years old next year, and judging from the 3,000 or so folks who showed up for the organization's convention in Cincinnati last week, so will many of its members. Though the nation's largest and most important civil rights organization now boasts about 35,000 members under 21, out of a total of roughly 300,000, it comes across as "a geriatric club," in the wry evaluation of a former staff member.
That unkind observation stems in part from the N-Double-A's habit of harping on the civil rights victories of yesteryear, ancient history to younger blacks who weren't born when the Brown v. Board decision outlawed segregation and Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed his dream.
In recent years, privileged black boys and girls are likely to have grown up in mostly white suburbs, attending mostly white public or private schools, making friends and dating across racial lines so easily it would have given iconic ol' bigots like Orval Faubus a heart attack. They haven't lived racially separate and constricted lives, in large part because the NAACP and its allies in the movement did such a good job of blowing up racist legal barricades that stood in the way of first-class black citizenship.
That was the way it was supposed to be. The NAACP was supposed to work itself out of a job by defeating racial discrimination. It was supposed to sow the seeds of its own eventual irrelevance by accomplishing its mission. And, to a surprising extent, it has. The strides made by what was arguably blacks' "greatest generation"—led by the so-called Big Four of King, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League and James Farmer of CORE—paved the way for all the progress that has come since the glory days of the 1960s.
To cite just one example, there's no way Barack Obama could be one step away from the White House without the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. A new, better-trained, more politically savvy generation of black leadership has arrived. Time to pass the baton, old fogies, and move on!
Or is it?
Julian Bond doesn't think so, for a very good reason: The fight ain't over yet. The demand for racial justice would not disappear if Obama is elected, even if some whites holler that the debt's been paid. As far as the NAACP is concerned, just because Obama's black, he's not off the hook. As Bond, the NAACP's chairman, puts it, "We've always held presidents' feet to the fire and would expect to do no more or less with President Obama. The irony is that many good-hearted Americans will take his election as evidence that racial discrimination and division will have been conquered, leaving no reason for critiques or actions against him—no matter how great the cause."
For example, the NAACP will try to hold the next president, whomever he turns out to be, accountable for the devastating impact of the current housing crisis on black America. Like many problems facing the black community, the epidemic of foreclosures does not appear to be a racial issue because Americans of every stripe are suffering from it. But dig a bit deeper, and it's clear that racial minorities are experiencing a unique agony. Some experts believe that the flood of lost homes constitutes the greatest implosion of black wealth since Reconstruction,an astonishing $164 billion to $213 billion. And, as the NAACP sees it, this disaster is no accident.
According to a lawsuit the organization filed recentlyagainst 17 top mortgage lenders' like Citi, HSBC, WaMu, GMAC and JP Morgan, African-American borrowers were given loans with higher interest rates and other poor terms solely because of their race.
This is the sort of outrage that could go unnoticed if the NAACP were not around to keep track of things. No other organization, for example, monitors the nation's largest corporations' progress toward meeting the needs of black consumers. No other civil rights organization comes close to matching the NAACP's influence in Congress. And, it's important to note, the score-keeping is just as vital at the local level. If the NAACP were to fold its tent, says Bond, "I think people would miss most the knowledge; that in their hometowns there is an organization they can appeal to when racial discrimination afflicts them or when an egregious racial incident occurs."
And such incidents—like the strangulation of 19-year-old Ronnie White in a Prince George's County, Maryland jail last month—keep happening all the time. The local NAACP chapter is raising all kinds of hell about the incident—which took place in a jurisdiction where all the power is in the hands of black officials. You could not ask for more graphic proof that electing blacks to powerful positions does not necessarily ring down the hammer on injustice.
In the past, I, like many observers, have been critical of the NAACP because of its bureaucratic creakiness, interminable internal squabbling, occasional financial scandals, misplaced priorities and, let's face it, its unparalleled ability to shoot itself in the foot. Amazingly, last week it was not able to exploit all the attention it was getting because of appearances by both presidential candidates to showcase its vigorous new president and CEO elect, Benjamin Jealous, because he has not yet signed his employment contract. In some ways, it's not that big a deal, since Jealous, who at 35 is by far the youngest person ever to head the organization, will come aboard this fall and prove, in Bond's words, that the "NAACP isn't composed entirely of gray-headed old fogies like me." Nonetheless, it missed a chance to put its new leader in the spotlight and gain some favorable publicity.
And yet, as I sat down to write this article, I found myself agreeing with the assessment of Hilary Shelton, who, as head of the NAACP's Washington bureau, is in a way, black America's man on Capitol Hill: "If the NAACP did not exist, we would have to invent it," Shelton says. For all its maddening flaws, the NAACP remains essential to the advancement of black people. Last night, for the first time in many years, I renewed my membership. I must be getting old.
Jack White teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.