At 113, the NAACP is evolving to be relevant on the racial justice agenda
As the NAACP turns 113, expect its voice to grow louder on issues like climate change, the student debt crisis, and the continued response to the coronavirus pandemic — while keeping the suffrage and criminal justice reform at the forefront of its priorities.
The anniversary of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization comes next month as it undergoes a restructure to reflect a membership and leadership that tends to be younger, to people in their mid-30s. As a result, he adds efforts such as producing streaming TV content for CBS.
The hope is that young Americans will see that the NAACP has modernized itself beyond being grandma and grandpa’s civil rights center, good for more than just listing campaigns. elections and the star-studded Image Awards.
“We had to reinvigorate the organization,” National President Derrick Johnson, 53, told The Associated Press.
“The changes we’ve seen are absolutely necessary for the organization to exist for the next 112 or 113 years,” he added. “But more importantly, we are more focused in our work and driven by results rather than outcomes.”
The legacy of the NAACP includes the legal desegregation of schools and workplaces, the crusades against lynching and racial terrorism, and the pursuit of socioeconomic advancement for black Americans. It commands the respect of US presidents and the powerful on Capitol Hill, speaks with UN diplomats on global issues, and trains future leaders through its network of thousands of state and local branches.
But in periods of NAACP history when it found itself plagued by financial difficulties and internal power struggles, the group appeared ineffective or even irrelevant. Former critics said the NAACP was insular, too preoccupied with corporate funding, and not nimble or progressive enough for its time.
“The best of the NAACP was when it fought for change, not as a reward for black people voting for a candidate, but because change was required by the promises of the constitution, the demands of rights of man and the sound morality of our deepest religions. traditions,” said the Reverend William Barber II, who led the North Carolina NAACP from 2006 to 2017 before stepping down to become co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“Right now the NAACP should be looking at its best story,” Barber told the AP.
A revamped “brain trust” within its leadership is helping to better meet the needs of its members, said Yumeka Rushing, director of strategy for the NAACP. At a national staff retreat in December, about half of those present had come on board in the previous 12 months.
“There’s no other organization like us, in terms of the footprint we have in the country,” Rushing said. “The restructuring happened at a time when the country needed us most, to stand up and talk about the issues.”
Johnson said there is no bigger issue for the NAACP than the fight to improve voter protections. As the Senate missed this week’s deadline for Martin Luther King Jr. Day to pass Democratic-backed legislation, the NAACP chairman issued a stark warning to lawmakers from both parties.
“Anything short of protecting the right to vote is a death sentence for democracy. The fight is far from over,” Johnson said after a Senate vote Wednesday night.
Johnson told the AP that the organization’s suffrage strategy is not just about preserving the influence of black voters in national elections. Following the release of 2020 census data, the NAACP filed lawsuits against state redistricting plans in Texas, Georgia and Illinois that would limit voter choices in elections.
“It’s more about having real representative democracy,” he said.
Until a decade ago, it was easier to find bipartisan support for voter protection measures. In a 2006 speech to the NAACP’s national convention in Washington, former Republican President George W. Bush affirmed his support for Congress’ reauthorization of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“President (Lyndon) Johnson has called the right to vote the lifeblood of our democracy,” Bush said. “It was true then, and it remains true today.”
Paris Dennard, spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, said the NAACP and GOP have historically aligned on several civil rights issues, including criminal justice reform, election integrity and financial support for colleges and universities. historically black.
“The NAACP is meant to be nonpartisan, so we’re always looking for areas of alignment on a host of issues,” Dennard said.
Founded on February 12, 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed as the nation struggled to build a multiracial post-abolition democracy amid violence against black people. Its white founders, a group of activists and journalists including Henry Moskowitz, Mary White Ovington and William English Walling, joined like-minded black activists – WEB Du Bois, Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells, the famous journalist who investigated the lynching. in America.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, founded as part of the NAACP in 1940, argued the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education demanding desegregation of public schools in 1954, as well as a case authorizing affirmative action in college admissions. decades later. In 1957, the NAACP LDF became a separate entity.
Today, the NAACP has more than 2,200 branches, including colleges and prisons, and 2.2 million members. Even amid the rise in popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement, the number of young members has grown from 12,000 in 2019 to more than 17,000 by the end of 2020, according to Wisdom Cole, director of the youth and college division of the NAACP.
“The NAACP continues to be the nation’s premier civil rights organization,” said Randal Maurice Jelks, professor of African and African American studies at the University of Kansas. “He has put in place a bureaucracy to be able to manage the ongoing critical changes that we are facing.”
When other organizations have burned down, the NAACP is well positioned to last, Jelks said. “And that’s a credit to its original organizers.”
The NAACP operates two c3 nonprofits and two c4 nonprofits, as well as a for-profit branch. Its Hollywood office deals with issues of representation and equity in the entertainment industry, while its Legislative and Policy office in Washington lobbies lawmakers on NAACP priorities. A full-service law firm of seven attorneys works with a network of attorneys across the country, enabling the organization to litigate between 30 and 50 cases at any one time.
With tens of millions of dollars in assets in its entities in 2020, Johnson said the NAACP’s finances are healthier than at any time in its existence.
Johnson said his involvement with the NAACP began in 1990. Until his 2017 appointment as president and CEO, he volunteered in his home state of Mississippi in several capacities, notably as President of the State Conference.
His rise to leadership was not without challenges. In 2020, a former North Carolina NAACP official filed a $15 million lawsuit against the national organization after accusing her boss of sexual harassment and NAACP leadership of inaction.
The NAACP declined to comment citing ongoing litigation.
Johnson told the AP he grew as a leader by relying on the wisdom of the organization’s elders and the guidance of his youth.
“I was able to apply lessons learned, good and bad,” Johnson said. “As I navigate right now, I see that the relationships built over time are now coming full circle.”
He has fans within the Biden administration. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are longtime members of the NAACP who “work closely with the organization to advance their shared commitment to equal rights,” an official said. of the White House.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, also a life member of the NAACP, credits Johnson’s leadership for the group’s continued influence in national policy debates.
“If he doesn’t have a seat at the table, he brings one,” Fudge told the AP. “He makes himself relevant by going to tables where he may not have been invited.”