100 years on, the NAACP notes its accomplishments and challenges

The nation has elected a black man as president, but that hasn't erased deep-seated racism or economic inequalities.

More than a century ago, W.E.B. Dubois predicted "the color line" would be the problem of the 20th century.

This week as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) kicks off its centennial celebration in New York, an African American sits in the White House. That instills pride in many blacks and is a testament to Mr. Dubois, a founding member of the NAACP, and his belief that education and opportunity can open the promise of this nation to anyone, regardless of race.

But a duality persists. President Obama's election has not erased deep-seated racism in pockets of the nation or the glaring economic inequities that are the legacy of slavery and which prompted the founding of the NAACP, the nation's oldest and most influential civil rights organization.

Almost half of African-American and Latino students don't finish high school on time. Black unemployment remains twice that of whites. And young blacks with no criminal record are far more often to end up in jail than young whites. That has prompted the NAACP's leadership to pledge on this 100th anniversary to redouble the organization's effort to improve education and reform the criminal justice system.

"We've clearly come a long way. We've broken through a lot of the barriers and the glass ceilings," says Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau. "But we've still got challenges. We still have African Americans over-represented in the most challenging areas of our society and under-represented in some of the highest echelons."

The NAACP was founded as a direct result of deadly race riots that tore apart Springfield, Ill., in the summer of 1908.

It started when a white mob was stopped from breaking into a jail intending to lynch two black men, one of whom had been accused of raping a white woman, the other of murder. The mob then set fire to dozens of black businesses and homes. After two days of rioting, seven people were dead. The woman who made the initial rape accusation eventually recanted.

Civil rights activists at the time were appalled that the racial violence flaring in the South since the end of the Civil War had erupted in Abraham Lincoln's hometown -- on the eve of the centennial celebration of President Lincoln's birth. That prompted a series of meetings in New York that culminated in the 1909 founding of the NAACP.

Its stated goal was to ensure that the legal rights articulated in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution – which ban slavery and guarantee "any of the male inhabitants" of a state citizenship and voting rights – were upheld for all Americans.

During the last century, the NAACP has been at the forefront of the legal battles against segregation in the military, the federal government, and the nation's schools. It's also fought for laws that ensure voting rights and other policies designed to bring about racial and economic equality. But its core mission has always involved increasing educational opportunity, reflecting the way Dubois had seen it.

"Education is that whole system of human training within and without the school house walls, which molds and develops men," he wrote.

That has given the election of Obama, who first announced his candidacy in Springfield 100 years after those riots, a special resonance for many in the NAACP community as they celebrate their own centennial.

"In the ascension of Obama you see what can really happen if you provide the opportunity to learn to all students," says John Jackson, president of the Shcott Foundation for Public Education and the NAACP's former national director of education.

"He had the ability to attend schools that had the resources that increased his capacity to reach his full educational attainment," says Dr. Jackson. "That's part of the narrative that has to be told: that when our country invests in providing all students to learn mixed with our full participation in our democratic values, the sky is the limit."

The leaders of the NAACP contend that Obama's election has "emboldened and energized" people for that fight for educational and racial equality.

"That is why we intend to start our next 100 years by redoubling our efforts to close the gaps and begin finding solutions that are innovative and tangible in two especially urgent areas: education and criminal justice," Benjamin Todd Jealous, the current president and CEO of the NAACP wrote in a recent commentary on marking the centennial celebration. "There remains much to be done."


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