This week, and tomorrow especially, marks the coming together of several anniversaries. Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln turn 200, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — the NAACP — turns 100 tomorrow. That these anniversaries are coming together, it seems to me, is no accident of the calendar. There are important issues of organizational and ideological evolution to discuss, especially when it comes to the NAACP. Especially since much of the world — begrudgingly mind you — accepts the reality of evolution.
I’ve said this to my students and to my friends (and some not-friends) over the years. The NAACP has been an organization in search of a vision or cause since Monday, May 17, 1954. That was the day the Supreme Court voted 9-0 in favor of Brown in Brown v. Board of Education (as well as the Bolling v. Sharpe decision for Washington, DC — a federal territory), overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and the “separate but equal” doctrine of legal segregation. Since then, the NAACP has been behind the times. It lacked a coherent set of strategies around enforcement of the Brown decision and tactics for supporting the fledgling Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60. It didn’t retool to deal with the changing racial landscape of the post-Civil Rights era in the ’70s and ’80s. It made very superficial attempts to draw in new blood in the ’90s. And its new leadership created scandals involving misuse of funds and sexual escapades in the office, not helping with its declining and aging membership.
One thing that Lincoln and the NAACP’s founders had in common was their sense of history and adaptability. Both Lincoln and folks like W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and James Weldon Johnson understood the need for a grand vision, for a mission that would lead to a more perfect union. But they also understood that they operated within a specific context, with a need to address the needs of the people they served, elite and everyday folks alike. That’s what the NAACP of today lacks. Most of the legal legacy of the NAACP is contained in its separate NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which in turn is limited in its ability to take on cases. A lot of what they used to do in the good ol‘ days of Jim Crow has been supplanted by the work of the ACLU and the Office of Civil Rights in the US Department of Justice — even as weak as the latter has been over the years. Its social and community work is limited in scope, often overlapping with the work of local community organizations, Boys and Girls Clubs, the Urban League, and others.
The NAACP has failed to evolve. It hasn’t set as a new vision one that is multicultural, multiracial, or even — dare I say — post-racial (ugh, not that word again). The organization still has yet to figure out a coherent message for folks under the age of forty about what privileges come with membership. The NAACP still remains exclusionary and provincial, all but limited in its partnerships with similar organizations like the National Council of La Raza, Women of Color Resource Center, the Asian American Justice Center, and so on. In recent years, most of what we’ve heard about the organization has been its searches for a new CEO or its whining about some VIP or politician not attending their annual get-together.
The decline of this historic organization is a small example of a larger problem for the civil rights generation. How to remain relevant when the heady days of your ideas and activism has long passed. This isn’t an easy thing to address. We’ve been talking about this for years. For the civil rights generation the answer is life itself. Either one puts themselves in a position to pass on the torch, or life will simply pass one by, making one’s portfolio less relevant over time. Since many from the civil rights generation have refused to pass the torch, many have had to pry it from their hands in the form of new ideas, new activities, new small “m” movements in line with our multicultural and multiracial times.
For an organization like the NAACP, it may be time to say what many only discuss privately, for fear of being blasted in public. Sometimes when a movement evolves or ends, the purpose or mission of an organization has two choices. Either morph or adapt somehow to meet the needs of its potential members for the long term. Or wither on the vine. Social justice and nonprofit advocates have been writing for years about the need for some organizations to either merge in order to address the same issue or to fold — not every issue requires a brick-and-mortar institution to address it. This may well be true for the NAACP at a century old.
For those of you ready to rip me a new one, I’m hardly advocating that the NAACP should close its doors. If the NAACP cannot come up with a vision that embraces both where its potential members and where those potential members would like to go, then it really doesn’t have a purpose. Unlike historically Black colleges and universities, which still provide an education to twenty percent of all African American college students — and a growing number of White students — the NAACP has not made any serious attempts to adapt from its elitist beginnings to reach new generations. Without evolution, I’m afraid that the NAACP’s 100th anniversary celebration is a Pyrrhic one, as its future as a leading civil rights organization will continue to be bleak.