NAACP -- reassessing its role

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SINCE its founding in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (more familiarly, the NAACP) has demonstrated a tenacity that has enabled it to turn disheartening failure into success. Now the venerable civil rights organization seems to be in decline, ironically at a time when more blacks than ever are benefiting from the battles it has won in the courts and voting booths of the United States.

The most recent fruit of the NAACP's labors was the announcement by US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. that he will soon relinquish control of Boston's public schools. A school system where integration of black and white pupils was as radically resisted as in the remotest Deep South county has been brought into compliance with the law of the land as set forth by the US Supreme Court in 1954. Desegregation of schools is the prime example of how the NAACP works: within the system, interracially, and with patient but persistent pressure. The NAACP was also in the forefront of drives for voting rights, access to public accommodations, and job rights. Its leaders -- people like Bayard Rustin and Roy Wilkins -- had access to the white establishment in Washington. And they got results.

Today's young black adults, many of whom are reaping the benefits of NAACP struggles, are not attracted by the organization. They may see it as out of step with the times, or perhaps they react negatively to the term ``colored people'' in the name, since it is regarded, along with ``Negro,'' as demeaning to black people. Some may agree with black economist Walter Williams, who says that ``the civil rights struggle is over'' and the NAACP has ``outlived its usefulness.''

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Other well-known civil rights organizations have also suffered a letdown in support. But the NAACP seems hardest hit. In an era of catchy corporate logos and the illusion of instant gratification, the NAACP may not conform to current symbolism. After all, ``advancement'' carries a very strong hint of having to work long and hard for something. And it symbolizes reformation rather than revolution.

In the early decades of its existence, the NAACP's presence was felt in many Southern communities. Often it was personified in one individual, the president of the local chapter. And more often than not that person was a black, male professional -- a doctor, lawyer, minister, occasionally an intrepid educator or businessman. Other members tended to be less well known. (Whites would gossip about whether a particular black employee might belong to the NAACP.)

The local chapter heads put as much on the line as did civil rights demonstrators of the 1960s. They were listened to and even followed by the ``Negro'' community; they were accorded grudging respect by many in the white community. They shrewdly calculated just how far they could push for civil rights without losing their leverage -- perhaps even their livelihoods.

Some victories were small: getting a secondhand school bus to transport rural black children to a segregated county high school, or finding ``coloreds'' who had the temerity to go to the polls despite attempts to intimidate them. Dollars were few and precious, but -- with larger contributions from supportive whites in the North and South -- they fueled the long struggle until it burst into the national limelight in the '50s and '60s.

Quite possibly the NAACP needs to make some changes in goals and methods. But both the organization and its name are too much associated with a historic -- and still unfinished -- struggle to be discarded.

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