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Civil rights leader acknowledges its history
In a day and age when Barack Obama can be elected president of a country that a mere 200 years ago held people who looked like him in physical bondage; where laws that prevented Whites and Blacks from going to school and socializing together 50 years ago have been struck down, the relevance of an organization like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is sometimes questioned.
But newly appointed NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer, Benjamin T. Jealous, has the answer to that question.
“ . . . our branches are triage rooms for communities in crisis with the job market, the criminal justice system and with local schools. And at the end of the day, the NAACP is a very Black organization. But it’s not a Black organization; We’re a human rights organization rooted in the Black community fighting for everybody who is dealing with the same struggles or concerned about the same struggle that we’re dealing with.”
That broader viewpoint is part of a rebuilding strategy that Jealous, a 35-year-old human rights activist and newspaper editor, selected last August to head the organization, is bringing to the NAACP.
The rebuilding is both a practical and philosophical process that involves boosting a national headquarters staff that had been cut in half just before his arrival to work with the 1,500 most active chapters in the country to get them to change their way of doing business.
“. . . the place we’re trying to get to is to help these local NAACP chapters, that have become triage rooms for communities in crises, switch from reactive all the time to proactive most of the time; from being behind the problems to getting out in front of the problem; from not being able to solve the problem to solving the problem and moving on to the next one.
“We’re going to change the culture of the movement. We’re going to get it focused on the problems of today, and we’re going to equip our activists with solutions at the local level as well as mobilizing at the national level. We’re going to push young people back to the forefront of the movement by focusing on issues,” said the new president.
Like many great organizations, the NAACP was born 100 years ago in response to a need. In this case, it was the race riots in the “Land of Lincoln,” Springfield, IL during the summer of 1908, where numerous atrocities were committed against African American men, women and children.
The rampaging by some of the town’s “best citizens” raged for two days. At the end of that time, the official death total was reported to be seven—two Blacks and five accidental Whites.
However, it was rumored that there were many more deaths as a result of the riot.
Property damage was in excess of $200,000—40 homes were destroyed and others were damaged while 24 businesses were forced to close their doors either temporarily or permanently.
The carnage convinced a number of prominent Caucasians that it was time to take a very public stance in support of the rights of African Americans, and they began meeting with like-minded individuals as well as noted Blacks like W.E.B. Dubois and Ida B. Wells Barnett.
The result was creation of the NAACP in 1909. This civil rights organization had a parallel mission and goal to a group founded by Dubois called the Niagara Movement, which began in 1905.
Within a short time, realizing that it was better for one organization to struggle to raise funds, members of the Niagara Movement joined the NAACP, which began to organize chapters around the nation.
A mere five years after the parent organization formalized its operations on the East Coast, the Los Angeles Branch of the NAACP was established. The exact date was Dec. 19, 1914, and the chapter formed in the home of Drs. John and Vada Somerville, who were both graduates of the USC school of dentistry, and would later go on to build the Dunbar Hotel (initially called the Hotel Somerville). In 1928, this hotel hosted the first national NAACP conference held in the Western United States.
Like its parent, the Los Angeles NAACP fought discrimination and ill treatment of African Americans, and one of the chapter’s first successful campaigns was to convince the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to rescind a decision to bar Blacks from attending the training school for nurses at Los Angeles County Hospital.
The NAACP officially kicks off its centennial celebration today, and the NAACP headquarters office, based in Baltimore, MD, along with its 1,700 units nationwide, will host observances throughout the year and conclude on Feb. 12, 2010. These events will highlight the significant role the organization has played in leading social change in America.
Now, 100 years later Jealous sees the NAACP role as one of leading the charge for social change not just in African American communities but in neighborhoods and enclaves filled with people of color and others who are routinely shuffled to the side.
To do this, he is spending time and resources strengthening the structure of the NAACP and forging relationships with people, especially Republican lawmakers like senators Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to get their buy-in on crucial issues of concern.
But the organization is going even further and has developed a set of goals they believe should be addressed in the first year of the new Obama administration. Published in a just released white paper called “Year One: Toward Safe Communities, Good Schools and A Fair Chance for All Americans,” which was released at the kick off of its centennial celebration, yesterday, the NAACP put near the top of the list ensuring that the stimulus package that President Obama has crafted presents all Americans with a fair chance.
Other priorities include: Urging creation of policing standards that support the goal of effective law enforcement in all communities; elevating the standards of education to ensure that all children have full access to an opportunity to complete a high-quality education; urging establishment of uniform federal measures to assure that economic policies (particularly the bail out and stimulus funds) are administered in a way that does not violate civil and human rights; establishing an immediate moratorium on foreclosure and judicial loan modifications prior to foreclosures; and adopting policies that provide health care to the uninsured to begin reducing health care disparities.
And like their predecessors in 1909, today’s NAACP, under the guidance of Jealous will continue a battle that is decades old to insure that African Americans enjoy the fruits of their ancestor’s labors. They will do this by becoming a vocal advocate standing neck deep in efforts to shape policy and hold people in the government and the country accountable for giving every American a fair chance.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich backpedaled from his reverse racist slur of Supreme Court designate Sonia Sotomayor as a racist. A defiant Rush Limbaugh didn’t. There’s a reason.
The monument to 20th-century social change leader—and some say 20th-century prophet—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was finally dedicated this weekend on the National Mall.
LOS ANGELES, Calif.—The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors went behind closed doors today to discuss funding for investigations into Section 8 housing fraud in Lancaster and Palmdale amid allegations of racial discrimination.
The county stopped funding for the probes in June, instituting a 90-day moratorium when allegations of racism were raised.
The leader of the NAACP North Carolina State Conference, Rev. Dr. William Barber II, was handcuffed and taken to prison last week along with six other leaders for attempting to speak in the North Carolina state house against attempts by right wing, Tea Party-backed legislators to push through draconian cuts that would dramatically affect the poor and middle class.
The cuts are the latest in a coordinated move in the state to advance a radical agenda including resegregating schools, eroding voting rights, and cutting back on education funding.
The belief that President Obama’s election heralded immediate change was so strong that shortly after his win, the blog Debate Link featured a Nov. 7, 2008, column entitled. “Do We Still Need Civil Rights After Obama?”
It is a penetrating question.