New Ideas for a Civil Rights Group

The head of a Massachusetts chapter of the NAACP emphasizes community involvement

HERE in this once-prosperous shoe-manufacturing center north of Boston, L. Timothy Potter is putting forth bold new ideas for the community's African-American population.

As the new president of the Lynn, Mass., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Mr. Potter and a team of four other new officers are proposing an array of initiatives. They aim to change the national civil rights group's image of being unfocused and out of touch with contemporary social issues.

Potter says he believes his fresh ideas will benefit everyone in this ethnically diverse city, beset by the typical urban problems: crime, racial tension, drugs, high unemployment, and lack of quality affordable housing.

Some of Potter's initiatives include starting a monthly newsletter and a weekly cable-television show on issues concerning the African-American community. The group also plans to form a new African-American business association and launch a more ambitious membership drive. Youth programs - including forums with parents, youngsters, and school officials about drugs and crime - are being planned. A networking effort is in the works as well as plans to initiate programs with other community groups such as J ewish, Italian, and Hispanic organizations.

"The NAACP has been considered a bourgeois, upper-middle-class organization. And I'm trying my best to change that, to bring in young professionals between the ages of 25 and 50 who will develop programs and write proposals that will work to increase access to areas that we didn't have in the past," says Potter.

THE new, younger leadership - primarily in their 30s and 40s - includes Potter, three vice presidents, and three corporate secretaries, who assumed their positions Jan. 17. Potter says he hopes his team will reinvigorate the local NAACP group with what he calls an "innovative renaissance approach."

While the older generation of NAACP leaders led the fight against legal segregation, serious social problems must now be addressed, Potter says. His renaissance approach means handling these problems through preventive social programs and community outreach, he adds.

"We're innovating beyond" the idea of simply reacting to instances of racial discrimination, Potter says. "If you can create a better life for all people, in the process you will make a better existence for your own - which is something that hasn't been tried before."

While the NAACP at the national level has been criticized for years of infighting and lack of an organizational focus (See story, left.), many blacks in the Boston area applaud Potter's efforts in Lynn. The organization needs to broaden its focus beyond that of waging legal civil rights battles, says Joseph Boskin, professor of history and Afro-American studies at Boston University.

"There are a lot of legal problems blacks face, but how do you deal with the sociological difficulties blacks face in cities?" Professor Boskin asks.

"How do you deal with the problem of drugs that seems to beset so many young people? How do you deal with the problem of teenage pregnancy?... The NAACP can't deal with these problems. They have to reorient themselves and that's exactly what this man from Lynn is suggesting they do."

Gathered together for a week-night meeting on the second floor of a downtown Lynn building recently, local NAACP members were generally supportive of the change in leadership.

Darrell Murkison, the organization's third vice president, says he is eager to make the NAACP here more of a presence in the community. The group can take a more active role in addressing education, neighborhood crime, and housing issues, he says. "Lynn is no different than any other city in the country. People of color - African-American people - they need someone to really champion their cause."

In recent years, the NAACP has been too lax about addressing community concerns, Mr. Murkison says. "I think we need to be more active and visible," he says. "So much time has passed since some major strides have been made in civil rights, so people tend to forget what has been accomplished.... `What have you done for me lately?' That's the type of attitude I see here and reflected in the NAACP nationally."

CLARANCE THOMAS, a former president of the Lynn chapter, is cautiously optimistic about the new group of younger leaders.

"It's been kind of quiet for the last couple of years and these guys will make a few mistakes," he says. "The NAACP has its own political system but eventually they will learn. [Potter] is the idealist. We just have to make sure he reaches some of his goals."

The most recent outgoing president, Virginia Barton, says she is pleased to see a new group of young leaders take over but knows that it will not be an easy road ahead.

The new officerholders "really have their hands full," she says. "Change is hard on everybody, but usually change brings something for the best."

Observers of the national NAACP say younger African-American leaders will bring in a new perspective on issues of concern to the minority community.

"Increasingly, younger African-Americans are concerned about political and economic issues, and empowerment ... taking advantage of the opportunities that were afforded by the NAACP and other civil rights organizations during the '50s and '60s," says Russell Owens, director of government relations at Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that seeks to empower disadvantaged people.

Potter says two of his most important initiatives will be the new African-American business association and the newsletter. The business association will link minority consumers with minority business owners, so that the two can help one another, he says. Improving communications between minorities within the entire Massachusetts North Shore region, which includes several cities and towns north of Boston, will inform people on the streets about services the group has to offer - such as information on AID S, housing, and economic development.

Potter says it's time to change the focus of the NAACP to meet more of the daily concerns of the minority community.

"How can a person deal with civil rights or discrimination when they can't put food on the table?" he asks. "Discrimination still exists and there is still prejudice in the world, but it's hard to focus on it when you have your basic survival needs. I think some of these needs, along with civil rights, need to be addressed so that we can [solve] some of these problems."

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