NAACP tries to woo the hip-hop generation

But as the organization celebrates its centennial in New York, some young people have mixed feelings about how the NAACP fits in their lives.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Barack Obama takes the stage to speak after being introduced by National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Chairman Julian Bond (l.) at the NAACP's 100th anniversary convention in New York City Thursday.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, America's largest and oldest civil rights organization, is now trying to appeal to the so-called hip-hop generation.

About 1,000 young African-Americans converged on midtown Manhattan this week to help celebrate the NAACP's centennial. That number of young people is the largest in convention history, event organizers say.

Since the meeting began this past Saturday, an oft-repeated mantra among the mainly gray-haired delegates has been to make way for the young and able. And on Thursday night, the NAACP hopes to get a further boost when President Obama speaks to the organization.

But can the aging organization capitalize on Mr. Obama's appeal and draw the post-civil rights generations into its fold?

Bridging the generational divide is key for the NAACP as it fights modern incarnations of age-old racial inequities. This generational divide became more apparent during last year's presidential election, when distinctions were made between "traditional" black politicians and up-and-comers crafted in the Obama mold.

Some young convention participants, while eager to take part in the centennial, had a few reservations about the coming years for NAACP. Take Brooke Baldwin, president of the black student union at the College of Lake County in northeastern Illinois.

"I'm grateful for the past," she says, "but we need to fix the future. No one's trying to say [the civil rights generation] didn't do nothing. They did a lot. But what's going on now?"

Her voice rises as she lists issues besetting her community: teen dropout rates, pregnancy rates, gun violence, education, HIV/AIDS.

Like Ms. Baldwin, other young people here have some understanding that their social concerns have a connection to racism and discrimination. But they also find it difficult to explain why, even after the work of the civil rights movement and the election of Obama, those racially based disparities still exist.

The NAACP is trying to help them find their way.

Last year, in a controversial election, the organization chose their youngest president ever, a 30-something Rhodes scholar named Benjamin Todd Jealous who fits more readily into the Obama mold.

In a nearly hour-long speech to 5,000 delegates on Monday, Mr. Jealous referenced young people and the generational shift no fewer than 20 times.

To be sure, many young blacks have showed great enthusiasm in attending such a large NAACP event. In order to get here, some, like Demar Lamont Roberts from South Carolina, put aside college graduation money. When that amount proved too little, he charged the rest to his American Express card, which will soon be discovered by his unsuspecting father, who pays the bill.

Others carpooled, up to 24 hours in at least one case, and some groups squeezed six bodies into $240-a-night Times Square hotel rooms meant to sleep three.

Yet back home, youth members say, both membership and interest in the NAACP fall off after age 25. That's when people are supposed to transition from local youth chapters to their area's adult branch.

"You could be running to be president against a 60-year-old who's been there for 18 years," Mr. Roberts says.

Bryan Pope, who traveled to the convention with Baldwin and a college adviser, reflects on what for him was an introductory week to the NAACP.

"I don't want to be affiliated with [the NAACP] just because of the history," he says. "I don't really know what they can do in our community."

Mr. Pope, who aspires to teach African-American studies to inner-city high school students, came to the convention looking for concrete answers that he can take home.

"Give me some solutions to my problems. Don't just get me stirred up," he says.


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