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NAACP faces new challenges after 100 years

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 | 6:33 p.m. CST; updated 10:17 a.m. CST, Thursday, February 12, 2009

The bookends of the NAACP's century testify to the change it has wrought.

In 1908, a race riot in Springfield, Ill., left at least seven people dead and led to the birth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 2008, Barack Obama, who had launched his campaign just blocks from where the blood had been spilled in Springfield, became the first African-American president.

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In between, wielding legal arguments and moral suasion in equal measure, the NAACP demanded that America provide liberty and justice not only for blacks, but for all. Now, its achievements have created a daunting modern challenge as the NAACP turns 100 on Thursday: convincing people that the struggle continues.

"When I was in college, I could see signs that said 'white' and 'colored' when I went to the movie theater. That was an easy target for me to aim at," says Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP board. "Today, I don't see those signs, but I know that these divisions still exist ... and it's more difficult to convince people that there's a problem."

Benjamin Todd Jealous, the new president and CEO of the NAACP, says his greatest obstacle is "the lack of outrage about the ways that young people and working people are routinely mistreated."

He cites information such as a 70 percent unsolved murder rate in some black communities, blacks graduating from high school at a far lower rate than whites, and studies showing that whites with criminal records get jobs easier than blacks with clean histories.

"There are issues of basic fairness, obstacles to opportunity, that still exist," Jealous says. "The NAACP is needed now as urgently as it has ever been."

No one group did more to pave the way for Obama's ascension than the NAACP, historians say, pointing to the group's primary role in three towering civil rights victories — the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But now that the black son of a poor single mother has moved into the White House, a new era clearly has begun.

"We've got to rise to the occasion today," says former NAACP board chairman Myrlie Evers-Williams, who was married to the slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers.

"We cannot continue to sing 'We Shall Overcome,'" she says. "It's a dear, valued, valuable song that expresses a time that should live with us. But I want a new song."

The first incarnation of the NAACP was the Niagara Movement, a 1905 conference of prominent blacks led by the scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois. After the Springfield riots, Niagara members joined a group of mostly white Northerners to form the NAACP on Feb. 12, 1909 — the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth.

An early focus of the group was the hundreds of lynchings taking place each year. In 1917, the NAACP won its first Supreme Court case, a unanimous ruling that states could not segregate people into residential districts based on race.

This was an early example of perhaps the NAACP's most powerful argument: Equal rights are a fundamentally American value.

"We are the only country that was founded on an idea or a premise ... the notion of equal citizenship," says Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the civil rights movement. "Pretty much all of our history has tested what that meant. Most often the greatest crises have been around race."

The NAACP framed its arguments as "civil rights doesn't mean black rights, it means rights pertaining to citizenship," Branch says.

This stance provided huge moral leverage. "Their power came from knowing they were right," Bond says.

Power also came from thousands of average citizens who risked retaliation to challenge unjust laws.

"Thurgood Marshall's brilliance was the instrument of victory, but that brilliance was essentially rooted in the courage of ordinary farmers and workers," says William Chafe, a Duke University history professor.

Those legal victories laid a foundation for many different groups to demand equal protection under the law.

"It spread to women, disabled groups, the elderly," Branch says. "Most Americans are unaware of the things that it sparked, not just by other groups, but in areas other than school desegregation or race relations."

The great triumphs of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act marked the end of an era. Some of the NAACP's most significant post-'60s achievements, according to a timeline on the NAACP Web site, include helping keep conservative Robert Bork off the Supreme Court and ex-Klansman David Duke out of the U.S. Senate; registering hundreds of thousands of voters; leading marches; and pushing the issue of diversity in corporations and on television.

"In the second 50 years, I think their effectiveness has been reduced because they are perceived more as a group just trying to improve things for black people," Branchsays. "They don't have that broader claim."

The NAACP reached a low point in the early 1990s, when it faced a $4 million deficit. Evers-Williams was asked to run for board chairman. She worked tirelessly to raise funds — while not receiving any salary — and is credited with restoring the NAACP to prominence.

In the 1990s, a civil-rights backlash developed from decades of white guilt and new demands for black accountability.

"Lifting blacks up is no longer a matter of getting whites off our necks," the conservative black scholar John McWhorter wrote in 2004. "We are faced, rather, with the mundane tasks of teaching those 'left behind' after the civil rights victory how to succeed in a complex society."

In 2007, CEO Bruce Gordon abruptly resigned from the NAACP because of differences with the 64-member board, including Gordon's desire to focus on practical solutions rather than political advocacy.

Jealous, the new NAACP president, is 35 years old, and has a raft of ambitious plans such as "quality education for every child in this country" and "to revive our legacy as a human rights organization."

The NAACP now has a $21 million annual budget and 85 full-time employees. There are 525,000 members plus another 225,000 donors; the NAACP's membership peaked at 625,000 paid members in 1964.

NAACP board member Rev. Amos Brown says that Obama's election should not obscure the problems that still exist.

"If we get caught up in the euphoria of this election and fail to deal with reality," Brown says, "it's going to be a short-lived victory."


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